It was Rose-Anne Ajavon’s turn to play the responsible one. She had already taken her turn pretending to be a cigarette smoker peer pressuring her friends. Now it was her chance to show how everyone how she would refuse to smoke.
Performing in a skit at the Island Walk housing complex’s activity room in Reston recently, Ajavon easily brushed aside the temptation and turned the peer pressure back on the smoker.
"I told her, I don’t need to smoke. I have girl power and you can too!" said Ajavon, 12, surrounded by other girls enrolled in Girl Power!, an after-school program that helps steer girls away from smoking, drugs, alcohol, gangs and other dangerous activities.
Approximately 600 girls, ages 10 to 15, came from across Virginia to the annual Girl Power! conference last Saturday at the Reston Teen Center. The conference is the culmination of a year of activities held at schools and in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty.
"The goal of the program is to delay the onset of drug and alcohol abuse," said Clara Marshall, coordinator and founder of Girl Power!, a county-funded program that has spread to Richmond, Hampton Roads, Roanoke and the Eastern Shore. "We’re teaching them to resist peer pressure. We’re teaching them in strong ways how to say no."
The idea, Marshall said, is to attract at-risk girls to the program with interesting activities that often carry an underlying message. One day the girls might make fruit smoothies, teaching them about basic nutrition. Another day, they might play tennis or go bowling or ice-skating, helping to form a bond between the girls and make them feel like part of something larger than themselves.
"This makes girls take pride in their community at a really crucial age," Marshall said. "When you feel connected to your community and have more pride, you’re less likely to be involved in risky behavior."
LUZ MARINA ZULETA runs three weekly Girl Power! groups in Reston. In addition to the club at Island Walk, girls also meet at Stonegate Village and at Forest Edge Elementary School.
Zuleta said the program focuses on young girls because middle school can be a pivotal time, where they can either fall into a harmful lifestyle, or they can lay the foundation to resist dangerous temptations.
Also, many of the girls who enter the program are initially shy, Zuleta said, but Girl Power! is effective in drawing introverted girls out of their shells.
"A girl who is isolated at the end of sixth or seventh grade, she becomes part of the group," Zuleta said.
On a recent afternoon, Zuleta had her girls cut out words from magazines they believe describe themselves. The girls then pasted the words — saying things like "power" and "dreams" — onto a poster collage they presented to the other girls.
"We are here to make them become stronger and make good choices for their lives," Zuleta said.
Fairfax County Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who spoke at the conference on Saturday, said she is a believer in the program because it not only helps impart self-esteem, but also provides a forum for frank discussions about drugs, sexuality and the legitimacy of violence.
"Those discussions are often not gotten at home," Hudgins said. "Now they can ask themselves if this is really what they want to be doing."
A SIXTH GRADER at Lake Anne Elementary School, Christina Morris, 12, said Girl Power! has given her the facts on gangs, drugs and alcohol.
"It makes me want to say no," she said. "The more facts you know, the easier it is to say no."
Ajavon, a seventh grade student at Langston Hughes Middle School, said the program has taught her enough about risky behavior to make better-informed decisions.
"Don’t use drugs because it’s not good for your body," she said.