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Empowering Girls

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“When women are fully involved (in society), the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings, and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is true of communities and, eventually, whole countries,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a keynote address to the annual gala event of the International Women’s Health Coalition, in New York on January 15, 2004.

And what’s true in the world is true locally. And for women to be involved in society, society needs girls who have high self-esteem, confidence and a strong belief in themselves. Nonprofit Big Sky Youth Empowerment (BSYE) is making an impact on the lives of girls in Park and Gallatin counties that they hope will extend out into the greater community, and eventually the world.

BSYE Executive Director Pete MacFadyen writes in the 2005 annual report, “On a micro-level, we are working to provide individual youth the opportunity to increase their self-esteem, create interpersonal connections, and have fun. On the macro level we want to change the world—one kid at a time!”

This summer BSYE initiated a program aimed specifically at teenage girls, called Girls Empowerment. “It’s sort of an experiment,” laughs MacFadyen, but a successful one that he hopes to emulate and grow next summer. “The development issues that girls are facing are really different than what boys are facing,” he adds.

While all teenagers (and many adults!) deal with concerns like low self-esteem and how to fit in with ones peers, girls have a special set of issues to handle. Issues such as, body image, relationship pressures, learning to advocate for themselves and reconciling what they see in the mirror with images of the “ideal” woman splashed all over the media.

A 1999 study by researchers Paxton, Schutz, Wertheim and Muir found that groups of friends shared similar levels of body-image concern, dietary restrictions and use of weight loss behaviors. These friendship groups also had similar levels of depression and self-esteem. Other studies have concurred and added that peers have a much bigger influence on a girl’s image of herself than either the media or family.

That’s where Girls Empowerment comes in. The six girls, age 15-17, from Park High School in Livingston met once a week this summer with BSYE Lead Mentor and Park High School Counselor Katey Franklin. She led them through various activities and discussions on life skills as well as on exciting outdoor adventures.

One week the girls practiced trusting each other by blindfolding a partner and leading her through an obstacle course. Another week they created a collage representing how they felt the media told them to look, and another collage describing how they wanted to be portrayed. “In the Thursday meetings you learn a lot about yourself,” says 16 year-old participant Echo Anzik.

But the girls don’t just learn about themselves and each other in the classroom, they get outside and jump into adventure-based sports like horseback riding, whitewater rafting and rock climbing. “I liked getting outside and trying different things,” remembers 16 year-old Jessica Neville, “and you had to trust people with your life (when) rock climbing!”

“All the activities make you more confident,” explains Anzik. “I was scared to go rafting, but then it was fun.”

Franklin believes the confidence they build and the skills they acquire in the program will carry over into the girls’ everyday life. “They gain a self belief that they can try new things and be successful at them. They realize that it is themselves holding themselves back.”

Franklin recalls bringing a friend, Ruth, with her and the girls on one their horseback riding outings. Ruth said she was uncomfortable trotting and the other girls spoke up and suggested they all slow down. No one got mad at Ruth for speaking up for herself. “My biggest hope,” says Franklin, “is that they will be a true advocate for themselves and ask for help when needed.”

In a yoga class this August, yoga instructor and BSYE Board Member Kerrie Foote led the girls through a series of poses with Jack Johnson playing in the background. It wasn’t a typical yoga classes, there was chatting, giggling, and popular music set to the backdrop of the Park High library, but the girls took it seriously none the less.

From heart salutations to sun salutes to standing poses and headstands, the girls moved enthusiastically from one position to the other. Foote gently modified their postures as they stretched and maneuvered their way into proper form.

This group of warm, caring, confident young women seemed to genuinely like each other and be glad to be there. They encouraged one another as each attempted a headstand and didn’t worry about looking silly or not being able to do it right.

Like all BSYE programs, Girls Empowerment is aimed at teenagers with multiple risk factors such as low socio-economic status, school failure, abuse, abandonment etc. “The theory is the more risk factors there are in your life, the more likely you are to get in trouble,” explains MacFadyen. Which is why more risk factors equates to more likelihood of getting into a BSYE program. This year 150 kids applied for 36 spots.

MacFadyen started BSYE in 2001 after deciding that seeing teenagers one on one as a licensed counselor wasn’t “the best modality for change.” It seemed to him that counseling was something that parents wanted their kids to do, not something the teenagers were particularly interested in. Additionally, counseling was something that only financially well off parents could afford, whereas he wanted to impact disadvantaged youth.

“I wanted to share the things that keep me happy and healthy” like fishing and snowsports, MacFadyen says. He had three criteria for his new program: 1. Create a program that works, 2. have the program be scholarship based and 3. use outdoor sports as tools to create vehicles of change. Thus, BSYE was born.

Using outdoor activities to facilitate positive change in disadvantaged youth seems to be working according to the Girls Empowerment participant evaluations. Wrote one girl, “I would recommend this to friends because a lot of other teenagers go through the same obstacles we do and this program helps out.”

The girls went through a graduation ceremony in September, ending their summer of activities, but MacFadyen hopes many of them will be back. He plans to run a second-year program next summer. “Once a kid is in (the program), we try to keep them in as long as possible and help them transition into the next aspect of their lives,” he says.

Hopefully, with a few years of Girls Empowerment under their belts, these girls will be ready to take on the world and be fully involved in benefiting their families, communities and the world.

October 10, 2006

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