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Pump Up the Girl Power

Fifth- and sixth-grade girls at Halley Elementary participate in a program designed to boost self-esteem and confidence.

Terica Woods doesn’t care what the models on the covers of her favorite magazines are wearing.

“Not every model is perfect, nobody is perfect, so you shouldn’t try to be somebody else,” said Woods, a fifth-grader at Halley Elementary School in Fairfax Station.

Woods is one of 50 fifth- and sixth-graders at the school who are participating in the Girl Power! program, a year-long curriculum focusing on issues of self-esteem, substance abuse prevention and cultural awareness.

“It’s focused on all the issues girls face when they’re growing up,” said Lisa Bailey, one of two co-teachers of the program at Halley.

Currently, Halley's Girl Power! girls are nearing the end of their holiday service project, collecting new toys to donate to the Catholic Charities of the Washington, D.C., Archdiocese. On Dec. 17, members of the program will deliver the toys to St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Washington, where the toys will be distributed to needy families for Christmas.

“I think it will be a great experience on both ends, for us to be able to take them over and for them to see what their hard work has done,” said Bailey.

The service project is a good supplement to the rest of the curriculum, said the students, much of which revolves around developing self-confidence.

“It feels good to know some of the activities we’re doing are helping other people, and making other people feel good about themselves,” said sixth-grader Ryan Brady.

Created in 1996 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Girl Power! was designed to focus on the age group now known as “tweens,” girls 9-14. At Halley, one fifth-grade and one sixth-grade class each meet separately once a week, on Mondays. The setting is informal, and there is no homework. Through lectures, guest speakers and plenty of discussion time, the girls are taught about the value of their opinions, their backgrounds and culture, and the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol.

“We learn to respect ourselves and others, and to be happy with ourselves and how we look like,” said sixth-grader Brianna Pentz.

IN A PROJECT this year, students were instructed to comb magazines for pictures of people who they thought looked happy. For many of the girls, this meant finding women or girls who looked self-confident, not necessarily beautiful by usual standards.

“Some of the girls in the magazines looked perfect, and some girls said that didn’t make them feel good, because they’re not as perfect as they are,” said Brady. “But some of the ads showed kids advertising milk, and they weren’t all models. You can advertise things without having all that stuff done to you.”

The goal, said Bailey, is for students to become more self-confident through exercises, projects and discussion.

One recent project involved students bringing in a memento that represented their cultural background — their nationality, family history and customs. That experience was an eye-opener, even though some students thought they already knew their classmates, said Bailey.

“The girls were surprised at some of the things they learned about each other. In addition to learning more about themselves, they’re learning more about other people’s backgrounds as well,” she said.

The 32-week curriculum is supported locally by the Fairfax/Falls Church Community Services Board Prevention Services. According to the county Web site, more than 600 girls participate in the program, and in June, the county celebrated Girl Power! Day. At Halley, students are randomly chosen before fifth grade for the 25 spots in the program, since space is not available for everyone to participate. Students have the opportunity to continue the program when they reach middle school. Bailey said the opportunity to reach girls at this crucial age is one she cherishes.

“Some of the girls are well-rounded and have that sense of confidence, but you’d be surprised from talking to them, some of them don’t, because of issues that are going on at home or in other classes,” she said. “That’s something they should have at this age.”