Author: Blythe Duckworth, Senior Project Manager Today I visited an elementary school for a unique opportunity to see the Policy Center’s Girl Matters: It’s Elementary program in action. The program was piloted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and local funders for four years, and this June the grant is coming to a close as the research team feverishly processes data to measure the program’s results. There were five girls in the group, ages 9 to 12. They looked at me with curious eyes. I sat and watched quietly as they started their “check-in.” Each girl had her moment to point to the emotions on the wall and express how she was feeling. Each girl pointed to about four distinctly different emotions: angry, annoyed, excited and happy. I was surprised how uninhibited the girls were to express multiple “positive” and “negative” feelings. This exercise focused the girls, and then they moved into the lesson exploring emotions and talked about expressing feelings in a calm manner. Conchetta, the care manager asked, “Can we control others?” The girls answered, “No.” “Who can we govern?” The girls answered, “Ourselves.” Conchetta went on to explain that we can only control ourselves and we can understand our emotions to help keep us safe. The girls then started working on their activity: to decorate two sides of a mask, write their emotions on one side and how you they appear to others on the other side. I was stunned. On the inside, each girl wrote: “angry,” “sad” or “mad.” This is the side of girls we often don’t see. This gave Conchetta and the interns an opportunity to ask the girls some questions about their feelings.
Melinda, 12, said she was angry because another girl “keeps getting an attitude with her.” What about? Anything, even about not wanting to share her chips. Jada, the intern guiding the session, asked “What do you know about her home life? Does she spend time with her mom like you do?” Melinda said, “No! My mom is always around and her mom is never around because she’s working.” Girl Matters teaches girls to understand their emotions and to see people in the context of their life, not just one moment in time. Isn’t this a lesson we all need? Cassey, 9, made the biggest impression on me. She asked if she could show me her special box where she keeps all of her Girl Matter’s projects. Her box was empty, but it was decorated on the inside, a safe place to express how she’s feeling. The words R.I.P. were in green glitter. She said, “This means rest in peace, and it’s for my cousin. Have you heard of him on the news?” She continued on in great detail explaining how exactly her cousin was killed. She continued to list at least five other family members that had died. I was stunned by her stories, and she’s just 9 years old. Cassey was so forthright in expressing her grief. I think we want to believe kids don’t have such “adult” feelings, but girls are dealing with trauma.
When I asked, “What’s your favorite part of coming to Girl Matters?” Two of the girls said, “The interns, because they listen to my problems and relate to me.” For these young girls, it’s not about getting out of class, the activities, or talking with their friends — it’s about feeling safe and understood. Girl Matters: It’s Elementary is coming to a transition. We are putting a sustainability plan in place so that volunteers can run the program. No doubt, the girls need and want the program to continue.
The girls saw me in the walkway when I was leaving school. Melinda put her arm around me and asked, “You got any candy?” Then she wanted to know when I was coming back. Cassey, who shared her story with me about her cousin, walked up to me, said nothing, and pulled out her pencil box to show me her “Girl Matters: It’s Elementary” pencil, which she NEVER used… rather she kept it safe and protected. * The girls’ names are changed for privacy.