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Girls find their voices

Program structured around a life-skills curriculum

There is a time somewhere around sixth grade where everything starts to get jumbled up in girls.

Bodies are changing along with interests and priorities. Sometimes they are sad or mad or happy or depressed — suddenly they are on a emotional thrill ride and they don't know why.

Some girls get mean and aggressive, some become withdrawn. They struggle with self-esteem, self-worth and thoughts about the future, and for those who are at-risk the years following can be a tough road.

But a nonprofit youth organization, Colors of Success, has taken a youth program similar to one operated at the Boys and Girls Club and brought it to schools.

Girls With a Voice track II is a program structured around a life-skills curriculum. Discussions and activities center around communication skills, substance abuse prevention, sexuality issues and pregnancy prevention, along with diversity and cultural awareness.

It is designed to work with young women ages 11-17 — aimed at enhancing and promoting character growth, improving self-esteem, and providing girls with positive role models.

But though it is curriculum-based, it's far from formal.

Gina Tuaone, site coordinator for GWAV at Mountain View Elementary, said she makes a point to hold meetings outside of a classroom setting.

It needs to be a safe environment where the girls can open up on a personal level. What is said in the group is meant to stay in the group. But it often takes a few weeks to get girls really talking — a few more if the girls initially are more foes than friends.

Mountain View's group is all sixth-graders. But though the group of around 12 is all the same age, they range from wearing pigtails to press-on nails.

One girl sits cross-legged and laughs loudly and chomps on a cookie. One girl is a little more shy and sits near in the corner, reluctant to make any comments.

But regardless, Tuaone said her goal is to help every girl learn to voice opinions, stand up for herself and look to the future — be it immediate or further down the road.

Tuaone has each girl hold up a mirror in front of herself. "Describe to your partner that person."

Some giggle and are reluctant to get into any real detail, especially the complimentary type. Most are uncomfortable just looking in the mirror.

It's one of the many activities used in talking about how the girls see themselves and how they should see themselves, said Tuaone.

"It amazes me with how down they are on themselves as sixth-graders and they haven't even hit middle school, junior high or high school," said Alisa Elison, youth advocate at the school. "But if we can build these values in them while they are young I think it will help carry them through."

Tuaone said they commonly hold candid discussions about family, money, school, friends, and even boyfriends and how girls should be treated — going through possible relationship scenarios.

Marcia Raso, program specialist for Colors of Success, said so far GWAV has found a home in Mountain View, North Star Elementary, Jackson Elementary, West High and later this fall Rose Park Elementary — all of them Title I schools in the Salt Lake City School District.

Girls are referred to the program through their counselors, teachers and principals to meet once a week. They are generally at-risk, living in poverty and most parents work two jobs, said Raso. That makes for little parental attention and these girls need good role models.

Aside from focuses on self-worth, confidence and friendship, a big focus is on the future.

"With a lot of these girls, you talk about college and it's something they don't even think of as a goal," Elison said.

Many of them are from traditional homes and they get caught up thinking that they need to grow up and find a husband to take care of them, Raso said.

GWAV discussions not only get into the importance of college but making it a realistic goal.

"So many think, 'This isn't for me, my family can't pay for college,' " said Raso. "They are in the mind-set that money and straight A's are the only ways to go to college — we help them realize that it's not impossible, that there are resources that can get them there."

Sixth grade may seem a little young to be facing such issues head on but Mountain View principal John Erlacher said there couldn't be a better age. It teaches them to open up early.

"We get them before they get into the middle school and they are too cool to participate," Erlacher said. "If we get them to buy in at the sixth grade then they know they have a voice somewhere, that someone's willing to listen."

Colors of Success has youth programs in 17 Title I schools in the district. They range from pregnancy prevention to first-time offender interventions.

Coordinators place these programs in various schools according to need. Aside from weekly meetings some groups hold outside social activities and service projects.

"They really evolve from the beginning of the year to the end of the year — we really try to build them up to stand up for themselves . . . and learn how to face disappointment," Tuaone said. "We may never know our impact on these girls until later on down the road . . . but at the end of the year they walk out of here different."