Girls’ ’Voices’ program now more important than ever
Like many of her peers at Norwich Free Academy (NFA), 16-year-old Chey of Preston worries about her image and weight – even though she knows on “another level” one does not have to be “skinny to be beautiful.”
She also wondered if other girls think about the same issues she does.
Chey and 6 other girls are now learning from each other and their facilitator and discovering ways to cope with the challenges of being a teenager today.
They’re all part of “Voices - A program of self discovery and empowerment FOR GIRLS” by Covington Books, which is open to anyone who identifies as female. The 10-week program is also being taught to a group of sixth-through-eighth-grade girls at Memorial Global Studies Magnet Middle School in Norwich.
Norwich Youth & Family Services started this program about 6 years ago, Coordinator Erin Haggan said during a May telephone interview. “We started to implement it just because we were seeing a lot of girls coming through our other programs. And schools were reaching out with concerns about girls’ self-esteem and their ability to communicate effectively and develop healthy relationships. So we purchased the curriculum and started implementing it with middle school and high school girls.”
“I do definitely have some issues with self-image, and just hearing the other girls having like the same issues, it's just comforting in itself,” Chey said during a telephone interview. She added that she “loves” her teacher (Katie Spendolini-Hatfield), who gives them advice about how to deal with different issues.
“I'm very sad for the amount of pressure and the unrealistic expectations that a lot of the kids have with how life really is and I think that it got really exacerbated during Covid, because all they had were their phones and social media to connect with each other,” said Chey, adding she spent almost all of quarantine on FaceTime with her friends. “Now, everyone's so addicted to their phones even more than before, because we're just so used to that.”
Each girl in the Voices program receives a journal where they do different activities and can choose to share what they’ve written if they’re comfortable.
Girls face a lot of pressure about their image “and to be passive,” Haggan said. To address these issues, she said the girls “make a collage and kind of put it in the shape of a tree. It starts with the messaging that they've received at their root like they have to look a certain way or be a certain way. And then as the tree grows, they put on pictures of like who they really are and what they want to be like and what they want to achieve. So there are a lot of activities about that, where they can try to focus on their strengths and develop that self-esteem.”
She said the collage is especially helpful “for some kids that have a hard time verbalizing thoughts and emotions. It gives (them) an opportunity through creative expression to do that.”
An entire section of the Voices program is about communication and teaching girls to be assertive, Haggan said. “There are sections about healthy relationships and how to recognize red flags that could be related to domestic violence, being controlled by a significant other, and then how to access help, but mainly how to identify those red flags to hopefully avoid being in the relationship at all.”
“There's a whole section on the mother-daughter relationship and how that can impact girls, especially if it's strained,” Haggan said.
They also explore friend groups and “how to navigate conflict, because conflict is a normal part of life. A lot of kids have not developed the decision-making skills and the conflict-resolution skills that help them to be successful,” she said. “Girls sometimes have a hard time forming relationships with other girls.”
The Voices’ decision-making section helps girls “identify their strengths and then develop the skills that they need to be empowered to be who they are, and not what society is kind of putting pressure on them to be.”
Additionally, Haggan said they talk about mental health and how to address it. “The girls are kind of bringing up issues that they're seeing. It’s really about what's coming up for them and every group is different based on the makeup of the girls.”
They also learn coping skills so they know what to do when they’re feeling anxious or sad.
Another activity involved cutting pictures out of magazines and creating a vision board. The girls then shared their goals and how they planned to achieve them, which Chey said was helpful in thinking about her own future and listening to others’ plans.
Now that she has bonded with girls in the Voices group, Chey said she has more friends at school and feels happier and more confident.
Her mother, Lee, said she thinks Voices offers a sense of belonging that Chey had during basketball season. “I think it's good for them to belong to something and to have a group of people that they can make connections with that they normally wouldn't.”
Everyone doesn’t go home and have “deep conversations with their parents,” Lee said. “So a lot of times it's validating the girls because they're talking to each other and they're almost like giving them permission to feel that way.”
“School is very stressful and having that group at the end of the day, being able to look forward to that definitely helps me get through my day a lot easier,” Chey said. “It’s just a place where I can process. It’s a very safe environment that the teacher created.”
A separate program for boys called “The Council” did not run this year, because they did not have the resources for the program, Haggan said.
She said stereotypes and messaging are different for both genders. “Boys have more of a competitive nature and this like pressure to not show emotions, where girls are sometimes considered to be too emotional.”
Lee and Chey agreed they would like to see a program where boys and girls learn together, so they can hear the impact their behavior has on the opposite gender, such as boys criticizing a girl for her image or weight, and vice versa.
Haggan said if young people “are concerned that they might be thinking about hurting themselves, they can call 211 to access a Mobile Crisis Clinician that can come out and meet with the kid and safety plan with them and try to help connect them to services.”
Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, lives in Westerly.