Program Seeks to Empower Young Girls

Program Seeks to Empower Young Girls

'Girl Power' Grows in County

Aug. 07, 2002

About this time every year, Clara Marshall and Kelly Matthews face temptation at every turn.

While shopping at the grocery store, chaperoning a field trip or even walking down the street, parents approach the women hoping to entice them into moving their daughters to the head of a waiting list.

The parents are not trying to get their daughters into an elite arts school or onto a top-notch sports team. They are trying to increase the chances of their daughters making the first-come, first-served cut for a 32-week program called “Girl Power.”

Marshall and Matthews specialize in prevention services with the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Service Board (CSB),

"I was volunteering on a school field trip last year and was talking to the mother next to me about Girl Power," Matthews said. "She said she would love to volunteer and asked if I could get her daughter into the program. I told her I'd write down her number to volunteer, but I couldn't do anything about getting her daughter into the program."

GIRL POWER, created five years ago by Marshall, is a substance-abuse-prevention program that also focuses on building self-esteem in girls 10-15. Initially, the program was offered at a single community center located in an area were the girls were considered at-risk for substance abuse or violence.

Last year, the program enrolled more than 450 girls at 22 sites including community centers and schools across Fairfax County regardless of at-risk status. Girl Power has become so popular that there is not only a waiting list of girls wanting to participate, there is also a waiting list for locations wanting to provide the program.

Recently, the CSB as well as two of its partners, the United Community Ministries and Alternative House, each received a grant from the Governor's Office for Substance Abuse Prevention that will help expand the program to at least 27 sites this year.

"It's really gaining a lot of momentum," said Matthews, a Girl Power coordinator.

Marshall said research shows that between the ages of 10 to 15, many girls begin to lose self-confidence in academics, arts and sports. Girl Power aims to build up self-esteem with a curriculum that includes educational and skill-building workshops, community service projects, positive communication workshops and alternative activities, such as bowling, tennis or golf, just for fun. In addition, the program encourages the girls to become active in extracurricular activities at school.

"Studies have made us aware that when girls are losing their self-esteem at school, they also start having problems with their parents," Matthews said. "So the parents and the girls work on communication skills together."

Parents are given newsletters and one-on-one contact with their Girl Power coordinator, in order to be able to continue to promote and reinforce the program's messages at home.

THE LESSONS are designed so the girls can remain with the program from fifth through eighth grade without its becoming repetitive. The topics range from proper nutrition to mental health issues to the physical and psychological changes to a young girl's body.

"Even if a girl is in the program for four years, she'll never be doing the same thing over again," Marshall said. "Every girl wants to be involved. It's very fun and interactive. It's the type of learning that's fun and hands-on."

Not only is the program growing within the county but other local jurisdictions have created Girl Power programs modeled after CSB's program. Each year, all the Girl Power groups have a professional-style conference, which includes delegations from Leesburg, Prince William County and Roanoke.

And unlike some community programs, the CSB can prove Girl Power is making a difference. Previously, the board was collecting data, such as GPAs and attendance records from the girls, to keep track of the progress of the program. Recently, the board developed a partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools to provide the statistical data the program needs.

"This is one of two programs we're trying to develop into a product that not only benefits Fairfax County but can help other communities," said Richard Eckert, coordinator of evaluation and quality assurance for the CSB. "We have to stay on top of our game or someone else will do it better."

Eckert said with the cooperation of the school system, the CSB can better keep track of changes in grades and attendance records, which will also help when the board goes looking for additional funding to keep the program running.

The CSB's preliminary evaluation report shows that during the course of the 1998-2000 school years, 62 percent of Girl Power girls increased their grades, 70 percent improved their school attendance and 73 percent had no record of disciplinary behavior in school.

In the 2000-01 school year, 63 percent of the girls increased their grades within the first six months of school, 86 percent improved or remained stable in the area of school bonding, defined as a measured respect for school property, and on school report cards, and 81 percent demonstrated improvement in self-control.

The final report, including data from the 2001-02 school year, is expected in September.

Girl Power begins late September, early October and will continue for 32 weeks as an after-school activity. Participants are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

"We tell our girls, ‘Once a Girl Power girl, always a Girl Power girl,’" Matthews said.

"And once their kid is involved, the parents become Girl Power girls, too. They get hooked," Marshall said.