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North Neighborhoods
Hampton middle school pupils, teens meet to talk during Girls Night Out

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

By Cooper Munroe

The ages of 11, 12 and 13 can be tough, especially for girls.

"There is so much going on. The girls are faced with so many things happening to them. There are a lot of stresses and changes in middle school," said Michele Hurst, a sixth-grade science teacher at Hampton Middle School.

To help girls at the school meet those challenges, a new workshop called Girls Night Out introduced them to skills for coping and communicating.

The first annual Girls Night Out, held Friday in the Hampton High School cafeteria, drew more than 100 sixth- through eighth-grade girls from Hampton Middle School, and came about through the efforts of Hurst and middle school guidance counselor Rochelle Cupps.

"With Girls Night Out, we can at least have them address these issues," Hurst said. "Sometimes they feel like they are on an island and there is no one there to help them. Through this program, they can see they are not alone. Other people feel like they do."

The evening was made possible through a $1,000 grant from the Hampton Alliance for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit group that provides funds for educational programs in Hampton Township School District.

Alison Strome, chairwoman of the alliance grant committee, was impressed with the concept.

"We're always looking to fund innovative things, and Girls Night Out has targeted a true national trend to encourage self-confidence at the middle-school level. Middle school girls need all the help they can get," Strome said.

The evening began with a fancy sit-down dinner, complete with cloth napkins, formal place settings and flower centerpieces. The dinner was designed to teach the girls table manners and how to avoid the potential pitfalls associated with elegant dining -- such as knowing which fork to use and keeping your hands out of your hair. Twenty-six mothers volunteered to serve the meal.

"It was really fun, great for the girls. And when we served the girls, we had our own little rules to follow. Serve from the right, clear from the left," said Sherry Dandrea, whose daughter, Stephanie, a sixth-grader, participated in the program.

A teacher was stationed at each table to help the girls through the etiquette lesson.

"We wanted to start with a dinner because table manners are so important for them, especially when they get into the business world," Hurst said.

A number of local businesses contributed items for the dinner and for door prizes, including Bruster's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream, Turner Dairy and Wildwood Highlands.

After dinner, the girls broke into small groups for workshops on conflict resolution, communication skills, dating and friendships, stress and depression. The workshops were taught by sophomore, junior and senior girls from the North Catholic High School Leadership Team and included role playing and practicing techniques to handle difficult situations.

Hurst explained that peer health education -- older teens teaching younger girls -- is an effective tool because the middle school girls relate to high school students, look up to them and tend to listen to their opinions.

"I thought it was really cool," said Mallory Scott, an eighth-grader who plays clarinet in the school band and likes English.

"It was different, not really school-like. I liked the way they told us stuff," she said.

One of her best friends, Eliza Ganster-Soudi, also an eighth-grader, found the workshop on dating and friendships particularly helpful.

"It really helps deal with friends fighting and stuff. It helps me, like, communicate with people," she said. "We have four best friends and we have some other friends that sit at our lunch table and we, like, have fights with them sometimes. This will help us a lot."

Pam Connolly has been the leadership coordinator at North Catholic High School for the past 12 years and trains 70 boys and girls each year to conduct 17 health-oriented workshops on different topics. In addition to the types of workshops taught at Girls Night Out, the leadership team also teaches cardiopulmonary resuscitation, bike safety and healthy eating, among other topics.

Connolly recently presented a 10-year study titled "The Power of Peer Health Education" to the Centers for Disease Control Division of Adolescent School Health Education conference in Washington, D.C.

"Peer health education is far more valuable than teacher to pupil. They aren't threatening. They are approachable. And the leadership team kids serve as good role models. They are really great kids. These kids are the best part of my day," she said.

According to Connolly, the Girls Night Out program comes at a critical time. "The big kids [on the leadership team] are worried about how younger kids are growing up. Bad behavior -- drugs, alcohol, premarital sex -- is [occurring] younger and younger. The majority of kids aren't doing bad things, but those who are really mess up their lives," she said.

Meagen Minnaugh, a senior at North Catholic, has been on the leadership team for three years and is also student body president and captain of the soccer team. "Mrs. Connolly really gives us positive support and really pushes us. She makes us a more unified team," Minnaugh said.

Minnaugh, along with leadership team members Mary Stotler and Athena McCarthy, also seniors, agreed that middle school is the most difficult group to teach. "They are so shy, [they] don't know how to act," Minnaugh said. But, the girls said, teaching middle-schoolers also is rewarding.

"I love knowing I'm helping younger kids," McCarthy said. "In sixth grade, I saw a leadership class and fell in love with the whole idea of good morals and safety. I always wanted to be in leadership."

Stotler said the leadership team has helped her, too. "In middle school, I was shy. I didn't like to speak and now I don't shut up. I think we show the younger kids that having an opinion is good -- 'We're confident and assertive and you can be, too.' "

Sherry Graham, president of the Hampton Middle School Parent-Teacher Organization, said she would like to attend a similar program for adults. "I wish parents could go through something like this. It would really help us," said Graham, whose seventh-grader, C.J., attended the program.

Hurst said she noticed an immediate difference in the girls' manners. "It was impressive the number of girls before they left for the evening that thanked me," she said.

Cooper Munroe is a freelance writer.

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