Sisters! Middle Schoolers Find Friendship and Support from UVA's Big Sisters

By Katie Goldhaber

It’s Wednesday afternoon at Walton Middle School. A group of middle school girls and college women sit together in a tight circle. There is some chatting and giggling, but the girls are mainly focused on playing a game together. One of them says, “Tap. Tap. Tap….,” as she walks around the group tapping people’s fists. Suddenly, she and another girl begin chasing each other in what looks like a variation of the game of Duck, duck, goose. One of the girls explains that this is an “Energizer” activity - designed to help the girls blow off steam after school and get excited about their Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP) meeting this afternoon.

As participants in YWLP, this group of women meets at Walton for two hours every week. Each middle schooler is paired with a college woman from the University of Virginia, who serves as her Big Sister. In addition to attending group meetings together, the pairs meet independently as well.

Candice Simpson, a Little Sister in the program, noted some of the things she and her Big Sister have done together this year, “We do a lot of fun things together, and we talk about a lot of stuff. We went to her house and watched a movie. We’ve gone to things at UVA. We picked pumpkins and painted them. We ate at her dining hall.”

Another Little Sister, Shannon price, described her Big Sister as “more of a real sister to me, because I was an only child for 13 years.” Price added, “I talk to her about mostly everything. We talk on the phone and go out.”

Lola Oguntebi describes the experience of being a Big Sister, “When we met, we found that in spite of our differences, we have a lot in common. We both like reggae music, spicy food, and of course cute boys. We both really enjoy spending time together. Sometimes I push her to get her schoolwork done, but it’s in an endearing way, and we joke about how she’s afraid of me, and that’s why she turns in projects at school.”

YWLP groups begin meeting in September and continue through the academic year. Weekly meetings always start with an Energizer activity and conclude with “Endfun,” which is another group activity designed to be fun and also to promote togetherness. For example, the girls may yell loudly for 5 seconds as part of a “Girl Roar” or read a series of inspiration quotations in unison. In between Energizers and Endfun, the group follows a curriculum centered on three concepts: Competence, Connection, and Autonomy.

“For the middle school girls and the college women, our mission is to have them see themselves as competent, to feel connected and supported by other girls and women, and to feel more confident in thinking for themselves; that is, in being autonomous,” stated program director Edith “Winx” Lawrence, Ph.D. Lawrence is a clinical psychologist and Professor in the Department of Human Services in UVA’s Curry school of Education.

Lawrence co-founded YWLP eight years ago to address an alarming research finding. The American Association of University Women found that as girls move from childhood into adolescence, their self-esteem drops significantly. In order to address this concern, YWLP was created to help girls rediscover and make good use of their multiple talents.

According to Lawrence, “We started because of a concern that middle school girls are going through a transition and could use some support. Middle school can be a confusing time – a time when girls must make important decisions about their schoolwork, how they treat their bodies, how they interact with boys and girls, and how they negotiate with adults. We noticed that college women are also dealing with a lot the same issues, especially body issues, making choices about academics, and making choices about risky behavior. We thought it would make sense for those two groups to help each other out, so we developed a mentoring program.”

YWLP is structured around an eighteen-week curriculum aimed at reinforcing participants’ inherent competence and enhancing their perceptions of themselves as leaders. For example, participants discuss strategies to overcome obstacles such as put-downs and negative mood, complete exercises that underline the importance of independent thinking, role-play solutions to hypothetical dilemmas or “sticky situations,” and learn ways to effectively reason through problems.

Many of the girls noted that their favorite YWLP lesson was learning to become “Gossip Guards.” or people who try to stop gossiping in its tracks. During this group meeting, the girls first discussed how gossiping can cause hurt feelings and get them into trouble with their friends. Next, they learned two ways to stop gossiping: Number one, when they hear other people saying something negative about a person, they can say something positive. Number two, when they find themselves on the brink of gossiping, they can take a minute to consider their underlying feelings of anger, jealousy, or sadness, and express those feelings instead. In contrast to the cattiness that often characterizes middle school, the YWLP girls describe their group meetings as open, trusting forum sto discuss genuine problems and feelings.

Little Sister Jasmine Boling stated, “Everything said in our group stays in our group. It never goes anywhere. I really like that.”

Lindsay Haazer, who facilitates the Walton group, said, “I get to know all of the girls on a personal level. It’s exciting to see all of the different personalities and find out what they’re going through. They feel comfortable talking with each other about their problems, and that’s really meaningful.”

Gabriel DeBlank had similar comments about facilitating a group at Burley Middle School, “I saw how much the college women and middle school girls had in common with each other and how well they got along. Once things got started and they got to know each other, they were good at supporting each other and forming a community within the group.”

Another popular YWLP activity is “Crossing the Line.” For this lesson, the girls all stand on one side of the room, behind an imaginary line. They are told to listen to various prompts and to cross the line if those categories apply to them. Some prompts are more benign such as “Cross if you’re an only child,” but others are more personal and revealing, including, “Cross if you feel your clothes aren’t stylish enough,” or “Cross if your parents don’t live together,” or “Cross if you sometimes feel embarrassed about your body.” Both Big and Little Sister report that this activity is particularly valuable because it helps YWLP participants become more aware of the stereotypes they hold about themselves and other people.

Since its inception in 1997, YWLP has expanded to six local sites. The program also has national sites in Colorado, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Most of the groups are school-based, but a few are community-based. Lawrence explains the benefits of a school-based, group format, stating, “Unlike other mentoring programs, we have a group format to ensure that the meetings occur and that a connection takes place not only between the Little Sisters and Big Sisters but also among the Little Sisters themselves and the Big Sisters. It’s school-based intentionally so that it helps the little sisters feel a sense of connection to their school.”

Big Sister Bethany Elliot also spoke to the value of working together in mentoring groups, “It brings girls together who might not normally hang out and see each other in school. They can learn from each other’s diverse experiences and also have fun. It’s also that way for the college women. It brought me together with people that I might have ever met, but I’ve seen that we have a lot in common. It’s good experience.”

Each semester, the YWLP groups work together on a community service project that exemplifies their leadership abilities. Past projects have included creating a video of girls making healthy decisions in difficult situations, cleaning up areas near their school, and conducting a food drive for the area food bank.

School personnel nominate seventh grade girls for participation in YWLP. Ashley Thorndike, M.Ed., who serves as YWLP’s co-director, described the Little Sisters as “girls in the middle.” In other words, they aren’t at the top of their class or leading the student counsel, but they aren’t failing or acting out either.

“They might be shy girls, or girls who aren’t yet sure about what direction they’re going to take in middle school. They could use some support in deciding about academics, risky behavior, relationships with peers, etc.” said Thorndike.

Lawrence states that these girls have great potential to lead themselves and others in healthy directions, telling one particular success story, “One story that really touches me involves a girl several years ago who was a member of YWLP as a seventh grader. She was very shy and not very involved in the school at all. She really blossomed in YWLP, by both her parents report and the school’s report. She went on to win the leadership award for her school at the end of that year.”

YWLP Big Sisters are selected through an application and interview process. Overall, the program requires an 18-month commitment from these women: one semester of training and a year of mentoring their little sisters. Despite this substantial time commitment, Lawrence reports that there is typically a waiting list of college women who wish to become involved in YWLP.

When it comes to YWLP personnel, Lawrence and Thorndike are just the tip of the iceberg. Working under them are Program Coordinators Casey Crossthwait and Mishka Woodley, trainers who spend a semester preparing future Big Sisters for issues they might face while working with middle school girls, facilitators who lead weekly group meetings and Big Sister meetings, and all of the Big Sisters themselves.

In addition to the large program staff, YWLP also has a staff or researchers who periodically evaluate the program. They examine how YWLP affects participants’ academic competence, connection to their school, relationships with family members and friends, self-esteem, participation in bullying, involvement in risky behaviors, etc.

Thorndike explains that there is also an academic component to working with YWLP. “All of the training group facilitators, mentoring group facilitators, and research interns take a year-long class at UVA called, Issues Facing Adolescent Girls and College Women today. The course provides an opportunity to learn both theoretically and practically about the issues affecting girls and college women’s development. Specifically, we examine the physical, psychological, and cultural issues that affect these populations and relate these issues to what happens each week in our YWLP group meetings.”

Lawrence states that funding YWLP activities is one of the program’s greatest challenges. YWLP currently receives funding from the Oakhill fund, Alcoa Foundation, the Department of Social Services mentoring grant, and several private donations.

To become a little sister please call the program office at 434-924-8979 or email us at ywlp@virginia.edu. You can also visit http://avenue.org/mentorville online to find out about several mentoring programs in our community for boys, for girls, for children with special needs.

Kate Goldhaber, M.Ed. is a Clinical Psychology doctoral student at the University of Virginia.

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