Every Friday after school, these girls head to the Sterling Community Center to learn about “girl power.”
“I talk to all my friends, and we can talk about problems at school and stuff,” said Nancy Gomez, 13, who began participating in the girls’ group two months ago. “I learn how to make friends and how to be friendly with people.”
Gomez talked as she built block towers with her friends Yenifer Arriaza, 13; Jackie Euler, 12; and Kendra Alexander, 12, who are from Sterling. In another corner of the room, Jennifer Franconeri, teen services specialist through the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, talked to two middle school students as they drank sodas and ate popcorn.
It was a typical Friday get-together on March 14.
“They’re going to hang out anyway, but if we can make it a positive experience all the better,” said Franconeri, who was hired in December to develop a program for teenage girls based on the Girls Inc. girl power program. She initiated the program Jan. 24 to begin connecting with the girls before the paperwork for the program arrives next week. “They have to develop relationships. They have to build trust with me and with each other,” said Franconeri, a Sterling resident. “The closer knit group you have, the better results you’re going to get.”
FRANCONERI WORKS with the girls on interpersonal skills and self-esteem issues, starting each week with an interactive game to help the girls get to know one other. She chooses a theme for the remainder of the two-hour session that is carried out in various activities and games, speaker discussions every other week and, as planned for the spring, field trips. She aims to educate and empower the girls in their problem-solving and decision-making skills, teach them refusal skills and show them how to back away from peer pressure and bullying.
“This is about them … and what they want to talk about,” Franconeri said. “I try not to make it lecture but about them relating to each other.”
“We get to do all this fun stuff, and it’s easier to talk,” Yenifer said. “We learn how to talk to people better.”
The girls discuss anything from nutrition and exercise to bullying, substance abuse, gangs and self-defense. For some of the topics, the girls are asked to participate in skits so they can identify and practice ways to get out of certain situations and develop an immediate positive response. By interacting with one another, the girls learn how to support one another in the school setting if someone is bullied or put under peer pressure, Franconeri said.
“You get to learn how to work in groups and what to do when you work with other people,” Alexander said.
THE COUNTY received a $97,000 Title 5 grant to develop the girls program, which is aimed at Spanish-speaking girls and girls who are between the ages of 11 to 14, the age group faced with some of the hardest decisions, as Franconeri said.
Franconeri and David Baird, youth program specialist, expanded the program last week to a second location in Sterling at a homeowners’ association clubhouse. Called the Newberry Teen Club, the program includes activities and homework assistance for boys on Tuesday, a mixed group on Wednesday and girls on Thursday.
Franconeri hopes to expand the program to Leesburg and incorporate volunteer assistance so that the program can continue operating without grant funding. She set up an information table last week at Sterling Middle School to answer questions about the program and encourage students to participate. “There seems to be a lot of interest, but getting them here is so difficult,” she said. “It’s just whoever shows up.”