- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Deborah Irvin and Thelma Nolan, the founders and co-leaders of Girls are Talkin’, a nonprofit program designed to address the concerns of adolescent and teenage girls living in Montgomery County.

Q: What exactly is Girls are Talkin’?

A: Ms. Nolan: The program provides young women an opportunity to meet in a group setting where they can freely express their ideas and the many challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. They talk in a safe and nurturing environment about their needs, their wants and fears about adolescence. The girls range in age from 9 to 16. However, we do separate groups — the 9- to 12-year-olds have their sessions, and the 13- to-16-year-olds meet with their peers. Our next session begins on Tuesdays this fall at the Upper County Community Center from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. The young ladies come from public housing communities, as well as the general populace living in Montgomery County.

Of course, our goals are to increase their self-esteem, integrity, self-respect and personal value system, as well as their social skills, through awareness of positive methods of communication. We want to teach them how to make positive decisions for themselves.

Q: What was the impetus for the program?

A: Ms. Irvin: The program began in November 2002 as a response to the needs of young women on their journey to adulthood. Partnering was a result of Ms. Nolan and myself working together over the past several years in service to our communities. For example, if [the Housing Opportunities Commission] or the [Montgomery County Recreation Department] receives tickets to the circus or to a Georgetown basketball game, we would get together and bring some of the students from Ms. Nolan’s site and I would bring some of the students from my group — both agencies would provide transportation and staffing. We’ve also teamed up for neighborhood barbecues, bike rides with students along the canal and for Black History Month events. So, HOC and the Recreation Department have a long history of working together.

For this particular program, HOC supports Girls are Talkin’ by providing staff time and funding to cover expenses, including meals and field trips. And MCRD collaborates by providing staff time and the facility space. The Citizens Advisory Board of the Upper County Community Center provides funding for our opening pizza parties, so there’s no cost to the girls. However, we do ask for small contributions to cover some field trips to the movies, but no cost exceeds $10, and we have developed a scholarship fund for girls who cannot afford these fees.

When the program started, we had 18 girls of various ages and we quickly realized it was not meeting their needs, developmentally, due to the gaps among age groups. So, our second group served girls ages 9 to 12. We had 18 girls registered with an 83 percent attendance rate for eight sessions. That’s an extremely high number for teens with so much — in terms of studies and extra curricular activities. The third group served girls ages 13 to 16 and we had 14 registered, with an 86 percent attendance rate. Due to those high numbers and the good attendance, we decided to continue the program and sponsor a few special events during the summer.

Q: What are the strengths of the young ladies who attend the program?

A: Ms. Nolan: I think their strength is displayed in their willingness to open up and share their experiences about different topics. And their experiences have helped other girls in the program. So many are dealing with peer pressure and the influence of the media in a negative way versus a positive one. During one of our sessions, we showed the girls the top 10 BET videos and then Ms. Irvin and I asked them questions about the dress, the language, the music and the dancing. We wanted to find out if they thought those specific aspects had a negative affect on them and if those influences directly went against the grain of our program.

Some girls said the videos did not affect them adversely. Others thought the dress and the dancing was kind of cool. However, some girls said they considered the dancing inappropriate. The majority said they just liked the beat of the music as opposed to the lyrics.

Q: What are the needs of the young ladies who participate in Girls are Talkin’?

A: Ms. Nolan: A lot of their needs consist of being in a group setting where they can really open up and freely discuss how they feel about coming-of-age issues, conflicts with their parents, negative images and stereotypes of women that are consistently reinforced in the media. Of course, we adhere to strict confidentiality within the groups and the girls know they can trust us and they can trust their peers. The girls actually design the rules and regulations, so they know they can speak honestly about relationships.

We’re able to talk about high-risk relationships and what a good relationship is between two people and the different characteristics. We talk about danger signs [in relationships] — if someone raises their hand [to strike you] and verbal abuse. There was a situation that occurred in the community in which a young woman was murdered [by her ex-boyfriend]. So, we talk about the danger signs that they need to look for — we talk about values early on in the sessions — and when a boundary has been crossed in relationships, whether it is a young man or a young lady, it can go either way.

Q: What’s the most valuable lesson you and Ms. Nolan have learned since undertaking this project?

A: Ms. Irvin: I was inspired by the girls’ courage in terms of entering an unfamiliar environment where they didn’t know me or Ms. Nolan, and creating an atmosphere of trust and friendship in which each of the girls could be open and honest about their struggles, and offer one another encouragement and support. That’s the single most valuable lesson that I’ve learned from this program and I know Ms. Nolan shares my feeling.

In retrospect, I think the greatest modification we’ve made [since inception of the program] was in separating the age groups because it has worked to bring cohesiveness to the groups. Currently, we run eight-week sessions, but we would ideally like to extend the sessions to 10 to 12 weeks. The girls are so disappointed when the sessions end, and so are we. They always ask us, ‘why can’t the program be held every week year-round?’

Ms. Nolan and I work so well together and we utilize the resources at the Montgomery County Community Partnership [in Gaithersburg], which allows us to build a curriculum from the workbooks, videos and pamphlets that the partnership makes available to us free of charge. Actually, the resources the partnership provides are free to professionals who live or work in Montgomery County.

We really enjoy receiving topics from the girls who have voted on what will be discussed throughout our eight weeks together. It’s our job to brainstorm and create an activity that will identify risky or self-destructive behavior, whether it’s bullying or hiding your true feelings, and then focusing on what it means to respect yourself and others. Hopefully, the discussion and feedback is something they can take with them and pull upon the rest of their lives — and know what it feels like to be in positive relationships with people who value you.

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