Schenectady County

Day Out teaches girls good choices (with photo gallery)

The third annual Girls’ Day Out, presented by the Schenectady County Working Group on Girls, brought

“Hello! Hello!” Julia Helfman excitedly called out to the throng of seventh-grade girls who spilled through the doors at Glen Sanders Mansion Tuesday morning.

“Hello! Hello! You’re going to have a great day! You really are,” she said as they filed past.

The girls smiled brightly and chattered loudly as they made their way to the ballroom, where breakfast waited.

The third annual Girls’ Day Out, presented by the Schenectady County Working Group on Girls, brought together 150 middle-school girls from the Schenectady City School District. The purpose was to teach the girls how to make positive choices, build and maintain healthy relationships and live healthy lifestyles. It also gave them a chance to tap into their abundant creativity.

The event’s organizers believe that the combination of learning, sharing and creating that the workshop encouraged will ensure not just a great day for the girls but a great future.

“I’ve been a volunteer since my early 20s and now I’m 80, and I’ve sat on many boards in nine cities we’ve lived in. I’ve never, ever been as excited to participate in a collaborative group and in a mission like this one,” said Helfman, who is the fundraising chair for the working group. “It’s amazing. It’s unique, and it’s going to produce immediate results. You can just feel it. You can see it in the girls.”

Girls’ Day Out is organized by volunteers from Schenectady agencies and organizations that serve and care about girls. The event is presented in conjunction with the Schenectady City School District, and the district’s counselors and social workers participate.

Past Girls’ Day Out events, and the small group meetings that follow, have produced tangible results, Helfman said. “We’re told that there’s been fewer bullying incidents among these girls, less fighting and a sense of fellowship and community that didn’t exist before.”

Positive message

The dining room bubbled with excitement as the girls, from Oneida, Martin Luther King, Central Park and Mont Pleasant middle schools, sipped hot cocoa and ate pastries. But the room got quiet when keynote speaker Nichelle Rivers began to sing: “I believe I can fly. I think about it every night and day. Spread my wings and fly away.”

Murmurs of appreciation rose from the tables.

Rivers encouraged the girls to believe in themselves, to continue with their education and to be proud of who they are.

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what and who you really are. Your reputation is only what people think you are,” she told the young crowd. “Don’t let negative things people say or do discourage you. Hold your head high and say that nothing is impossible.”

Rivers, who is considered an expert in the areas of bullying, race and gender equity, came in contact with the working group while in Troy. Now an administrator with the Hempstead Union Free School District in Long Island, she traveled back to participate in the program.

“If they want me to come back every year, which I hope, I will,” she said.

After breakfast, the girls broke up into workshops that taught skills like how to manage friendships, how to build healthy relationships and how to communicate effectively with parents and other adults.

Cathy Welling, a prevention educator for the CAPIT program at Capital Region BOCES, was one of the women who taught the Mean Girls, Frenemies and BFFs workshop.

“We want to focus on helping girls foster positive relationships with one another, whether it’s in friendship groups or across friendship groups,” she said. “We’re looking at ways that they can be empowered to bring out the best in themselves and also healthy ways to respond to negativity from other girls.”

“What’s a ‘frenemy?’ ” Welling asked the group of 23 girls who sat in a circle during the workshop.

“You kind of hate her but you help her,” one girl responded.

“How many of you have a frenemy?” Welling asked. Several hands tentatively rose.

Friendship skills

The workshop focused mainly on the positive: what makes a good friend and how to be one. At its conclusion, the girls made magic wands, complete with brightly colored ribbons. On the star that topped each one, the girls wrote “magic powers” they possess that can help them build positive relationships.

Kiara McFarline, 12, who attends Martin Luther King Middle School said her magic powers were “I’m there for people who need me and I care about a lot of things.”

Shanyia Smith, 13, who attends Central Park Middle School, said her powers were that she is funny, talkative and creative. She came to the event hoping to meet new people.

Tiana Gannon, 12, who attends Oneida Middle School, learned an important lesson in the Mean Girls workshop. “I learned about learning how to get through life with mean people,” she said.

Elayah Grier, 13, who attends Oneida Middle School, said, “I learned how to keep a good friend.”

The lessons learned at Girls’ Day Out don’t stop when the girls walk out the door of the Glen Sanders Mansion, noted Joanne Tobiessen, chairwoman of the working group.

“I think what is so wonderful about this is the ripple effect — the fact that the clinicians who are here today, who sit in on the workshops, see what’s happening with the girls, they use this as a teachable moment in their interactions with the girls throughout the coming year, and mothers have commented on it, so it’s not something that stops here.”

The inspiration also continues in the Girls’ Circles, which meet biweekly for nine sessions following the Girls’ Day Out program. Facilitated by trained female volunteers, the groups give girls a chance to discuss their interests, hopes and worries.

Teresa Kennedy, who worked as a social worker with the Schenectady City School District until her retirement, serves as a muse for one of the Girls’ Circles.

“Middle-school girls have this great energy that you don’t see anywhere else, and it’s fun to be involved with them and to support them and to encourage them and to do fun activities with them,” she said. “We talk about making choices, making decisions, so by the time they finish, we hope they finish with more self confidence and happiness about just being a girl, and that’s a good thing.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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