Tamara Bowden used to be a bully.
“I was the one who picked on everybody,” the tall, bubbly ninth-grader admitted with a wide smile. “I was mad at myself, mad at the way people treated me and stuff, so I took it out on other people. Now I’m actually really nice.”
The Schenectady High School student credits her transformation to time spent in the Girls Day Out program, an initiative of the Schenectady County Working Group on Girls.
“It taught me how to look at other people’s perspectives,” she said. “You use words to talk it out instead of going, ‘I’m going to smack this person.’ ”
Now in its fifth year, the Girls Day Out program helps girls in the Schenectady City School District make a positive transition from middle school to high school. It provides them with tools to build healthy relationships, challenges them to examine their options and encourages them to set personal and education goals.
The program’s 2013-2014 session will benefit 240 girls.
The opportunities provided by Girls Day Out are broadening, thanks to a recently received $35,000 grant from The Schenectady Foundation.
The foundation, which devotes its assets to the well-being of Schenectady County residents, plans to invest $2 million in the community in celebration of its 50th anniversary.
The Working Group on Girls will receive $20,000 from the foundation this year and $15,000 in 2015. If the group can prove its effectiveness and sustainability, the foundation has pledged continued support, said Julia Helfman, fundraising chairwoman for the Working Group on Girls.
The grant money is already being put to good use. Thursday, a small portion of it was used to transport 80 eighth-grade girls to Schenectady High School for “Harriet Tells It Like It Is,” a one-woman play about Harriet Tubman. The trip was a way to introduce the girls to live theater, encourage their desire to remain in school and acquaint them with history, said Helfman.
Thanks to the Schenectady Foundation grant, future theater trips could be in the works, as well as a field trip to Schenectady County Community College.
In addition to one-day events, the Girls Day Out program offers girls the opportunity to participate in biweekly Girls’ Circles — small group meetings during which girls spend time with female “muses.” The adult volunteers help the girls explore ways to build healthy relationships, strong self-esteem and a plan for the future.
“Our goal really is to prepare these girls to graduate from high school and think about higher education,” said Helfman. “It’s difficult to get some of these girls to even think about remaining in school and so our goal is to really have them set goals for themselves, to feel self-worth, self-respect. There are many options and they’re in control of choosing any one of those options.”
During Girls’ Circles, participants listen to one another and learn that they don’t have all the answers, explained Ann Zonderman of Niskayuna, a muse who volunteers at Zoller School.
“They really are learning to listen to opinions beyond what they think is the one way. They may walk away with their own opinion, but they recognize that not everyone is really saluting the same flag.”
Nazefa Ali, a Zoller eighth-grader, said the Girls’ Circles have taught her how to control her temper and how to look more deeply into relationships.
“It’s just very fun in general. It makes us feel very good about ourselves and other people. It makes us think about other people’s lives way more deeper than usual,” she said.
Tychae Gunn, also in eighth grade at Zoller, said the program has taught her to be less quick to judge others.
“We talk about problems and relationships and we talk about how to really deal with them,” she said.