Teen girls get a start on empowerment

"Photo: Karen Samuelson of Langley, left, and AmeriCorps volunteer Julia Schimke, co-facilitators of Project Empower in the spring of 1998, highlight the various topics of discussion during the 10 sessions. The program was offered in Oak Harbor and on South Whidbey, with a partial program in Central Whidbey.File photoA new campaignProject Empower is considered to have been a highly successful undertaking in the effort to help young teenage girls at risk learn the skills necessary for life. Supporters hope to start new sessions, but funding sources must be found. Islanders who are interested in the program and its future can call Kathy McLaughlin at the Island County/Stanwood Community Public Health and Safety Network, 360-678-6386; or Karin Grossman at the Island County Health Department, 321-5111. In 1996-97, Soroptimists of South Whidbey, whose focus for the year was the issue of teen pregnancy, spearheaded a funding effort for a community program targeting the needs of middle school girls. Under then-president Barbara Peyser, the club budgeted a donation of $3,200 to the Teen Pregnancy Coalition, with the caveat that the other two Soroptimist Clubs on the island would also participate. Following that initial commitment, and with the assistance of the Whidbey General Hospital Foundation, a total of more than $10,000 was raised, and Whidbey’s Project Empower was launched. Two 10-week sessions were held, one on each end of the island, offering young women who were considered “at risk” an opportunity to learn life skills like anger management, stress reduction and healthy communication with boyfriends, peers, parents and other adults, as well as how to make sexual decisions. The facilitators were Karen Samuelson of Langley, a noted leader of workshops and seminars for women; and Julie Schimke, and AmeriCorps volunteer whose personal experience as a teenage mother lent a special validation to the program.Almost two years later, the organizers of Project Empower continue to seek a way to do it again.“I think we really made a difference,” said Kathy McLaughlin of the Island County/Stanwood Community Public Health and Safety/Network and a member of the core planning group. “The evaluation demonstrates impressive outcomes.”The girls in the groups ranged in age from 12 to 17, with an average age of 14. Some were struggling in school, others had had a pregnancy scare, had used alcohol or drugs or were having difficulties at home. Specifically, McLaughlin said: *71 percent had been sexually or physically abused*84 percent had been around very angry or violent people “sometimes” or “often”*53 percent had been suspended or expelled from school*53 percent had had sex; among these girls, the average age of the first sexual experience was 12.3*24 percent had been forced into sex*53 percent had been seriously depressed or suicidal*94 percent smoked cigarettes, 69 percent drank alcohol, 80 percent smoked marijuana, and 60 percent had used other drugs besides tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.At the end of 10 weeks, the evaluations showed there were increases in the girls’ general mood, their ability to cope with problems, the ease of sharing feelings, and a general feeling of control in life. And in the area of sexual activity, all of the girls who had had sex since the group had started using protection, and only one girl said she wanted a child before she was 19.“Eighty-six percent improved their knowledge of birth control methods,” McLaughlin said. “About 70 percent improved their knowledge of how a woman gets pregnant and how a girl could get HIV; and 64 percent improved their ability to correctly identify women’s reproductive body parts.”Those girls, who were in Project Empower as middle-schoolers, are now in high school, and although the program does not track the participants, McLaughlin sees many of them frequently and is optimistic about their future.“One girl in the Oak harbor sessions went afterward to the Youth and Family Summit, and has helped with Children’s Day and other events,” she said.All the girls said they thought the facilitators did a very good job.“The girls really related to Julie (Schimke),” McLaughlin said. “She was about the same age as they were, and she had been a teenage mother and had been through some of the same things. Then there was the balance with the “mom” image of Karen (Samuelson). It was the perfect combination. We know what works now.”Karen Grossman of the Island County Health Department (she is also a South Whidbey School District nurse) was also a member of the Teen Coalition planning group and noted that this inaugural Project Empower program on South Whidbey had also given the organizers inspiration and ideas for future programs: better follow-up, with perhaps a skills review for the girls to keep it up; better promotion so more girls hear about it; periodic sessions past the first 10 weeks; a look at long term impact through check-ins at six months and a year. The girls themselves were, according to the post-program interviews, “overwhelmingly satisfied” with their experience, McLaughlin said. Most wanted the group to continue longer and felt the sessions were fun, helpful, not too long, and not boring. They liked these groups better than classes or groups in school because they were more confidential, smaller, for girls only, led by females, and a “less painful” way to learn. All said they had made changes as a result of being in the group.In their own words:“When I started I felt like I was at the bottom of everything. And now I know exactly where I’m going to and what I’m going to be doing.” “I control my anger now (I had problems with that before). I use self talk. When I’m in a situation where I’m gonna lose my temper I say ‘I’m going to get mad, should I? No.’ I used it with my dad. I said, ‘I don’t want to get in a fight,’ so we talked. I would have punched a wall if it wasn’t for the group. It’s really helped me get along with my dad.”“... I started being angry after my aunt died, then my brother got put in prison and it started getting really chaotic at home. He was my hero. My parents split up a week after that. In this group I pretty much learned how to control my anger instead of just blowing up at somebody. In two years I’m going to be 18. If I kept on fighting I’d be going to jail. Now I haven’t been in trouble for a long time ...“Since the group, sex stuff has also changed a lot: protection, protection, protection. Me and my boyfriend got checked out for everything. The group also helped me get a job. Now I work at a restaurant. I don’t really like it, it’s hard. But I’m sticking with it ...”“They put you on healthy path. In the end it was all tied together, everything I was wondering or worrying about was covered.”“‘Project Empower’ was an ego boost. People liked me. People said how they felt about you. It was really cool, because I was really low on self confidence. Being here showed me people are going to listen to me and know how you feel. It was a big confidence booster, they showed how they feel about you -- the affirmation circle, they compliment you, give you daisies. I became less closed-minded, made more friends. It gives people a second chance.”"

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