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Mentors create future female Leaders

WE WERE all at "that awkward stage" once -- pre-pubescent adolescents just figuring out the way things worked. Through it all we looked up to the big kids -- they were so cool, so grown-up, and they had none of the silly problems we did. If only we could be like them, our lives would be so much better.

Today we are the older kids. We've learned that kids get a little less cruel as you get older and that awkwardness goes away a little, but problems certainly don't -- they just change.

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    A program run by the University's Women's Center is attempting to help girls in both stages of life. The Young Women Leaders Program, started in 1997, seeks to connect University students with local girls in the 11-12 year old danger zone where self-esteem begins to plummet. University students connect on a one-on-one basis with their "little sisters," and their teams organize group activities too.

    Participants are first- through third-year University students who undergo a semester of training and team building activities, then are assigned a 7th or 8th grader from Charlottesville. The girls' parents have signed them up for the program, and the hope is that they will not only see their new "big sisters" as role models, but also as people to talk to about their concerns. The girls may seem small, but their problems are often big.

    Middle school kids have a bigger role in our society today than they ever have. Not quite in their teen years, they are known as the "tweens." They are one of the biggest money-spending groups in our society; until recently they were the unstated prize in the war over tobacco, and they are constantly bombarded with images of sex and violence by the entertainment industry.

    Program participant Jennifer Boester says that at that age, "You don't really know who to talk to -- your relationship with your parents is going through stuff, so it's nice to have someone older around." University students have faced the same issues some of these girls have: peer pressure, questions about sex, eating disorders, even reconciling the image projected by the media with the image in the mirror.

    It's a confusing world for pre-teens. They are told in school and by parents not to use drugs or smoke, but they see the "cool older kids" doing it on TV. They are told to be careful about sex and violent behavior, but video games and movies give opposite messages. Who are their role models? Jennifer Love-Hewett, Dennis Rodman, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix? The President should no longer be on the list, and while some kids are lucky enough to have involved, strong parents, others are left without a good adult role model.

    The Young Women Leaders program attempts to bridge the gap. College students are old enough to have a good perspective on growing up, but young enough to still relate to these girls. The Women's Center has been careful to choose strong role models and train them to listen to their little sisters, and they are finding ways to best use their talents to help.

    The giving is not a one-way street, however. Participants say that they get a lot out of the program as well. Training sessions include team-building activities that allow students to meet new people and get to know their fellow women leaders. The program brings together a diverse group of people with one basic thing in common: They all know the value of having someone to talk to. Program participant Sarah Kinder said, "Surprisingly, it's been the greatest bonding experiences I've had at college. We meet with a group of 30 girls, all ages, all races, once a week. We speak candidly, honestly, passionately, compassionately about ourselves, issues, relationships, being women."

    A program like the Young Women Leaders can't promise to take the place of good parenting and good schools, but it can help. Kids can say things to these students they would never say to their parents -- they can be more honest about the pressures they are facing, and they can talk more openly about solutions. The students can be more honest about what they've faced and how they managed to get through it than they could in a less personal approach.

    Perhaps most important, for these girls, their "big sisters" are real. Not real in the sense of a blood relation, but real flesh and bone -- not the airbrushed images in magazines, not the made-up characters on TV. They are live people who just recently made it through their teen years and their adolescence, and they remember how scary it can be to say "no."

    "Barriers such as prejudice, embarrassment and shyness are overcome in this group because I think we are there ourselves to help these young girls overcome the same barriers as they enter these beginning stages of womanhood," said Kinder.

    The Women's Center recruits for the program in the fall and spring, and asks for a one-year commitment. For more information, contact the Women's Center program director Kim Roberts at 924-8979, or check out their Web site at www.virginia.edu/~womenctr.

    Emily Harding's column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily)

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