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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Girls Camp: Improving Self-Esteem

Air Date: Week of

The Center for Ventures in Girls Education based in Wellesley, Massachusetts is a program designed to help teenage girls keep their self-esteem. And as guest host Laura Knoy discovered, its organizers believe one of the keys to self- reliance lies in the outdoors. About 30 girls from metropolitan Boston journeyed to Sandwich, New Hampshire for the first week of a two year long commitment in which they experience the challenges, fears, and pleasures of close contact with Mother Nature.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
In recent years a number of studies have found that when girls hit their teens they often lose some self- confidence. They start to downplay their opinions, speak up less in class. A number of new programs are designed to help teenage girls keep their self- esteem. One is the Center for Ventures in Girls Education, based in Wellesley, Massachusetts. As I discovered over the course of this past year, its organizers believe one of the keys to self-reliance lies in the great outdoors.

(Splashing, gurgling water)

KNOY: About 30 girls from metropolitan Boston have journeyed to Sandwich, New Hampshire. It's week one of a 2-year-long commitment in which they'll experience the challenges, fears, and pleasures of nose-to-nose contact with Mother Nature.

(Water sounds continue; canoeing)

KNOY: Okay, which way are we going?

WOMAN: We're going to go left, see the...around the park there?


We're paddling toward an island in the middle of Squam Lake, surrounded by thick pine forests and gentle mountains. Thirteen-year-olds Chevan and Latitia say the water was choppy yesterday. It was a little scary for 2 city girls who'd never even been in a canoe before, much less paddled one across a rough lake. But they got to shore safely, and Latitia says they learned something in the process.

LATITIA: At first I was really afraid of the canoeing, because I was like, "I'm gonna fall!" But then I got used to it. And I can go home and say Ma, look, I did this. And I got over this fear. Because when I left I was, like, I can't believe I'm doing this! And I cried because I miss my sister. But now I can actually say I've done it, and that if anyone needs help I can help them.

KNOY: The idea behind the New Hampshire camp is that challenges like the rough canoe ride build confidence and courage. Later this week Latitia and the others will learn to rock climb. Sharon Hainsforth is a camp instructor.

HAINSFORTH: So they get up on the rock climb, and get really nervous and scared and say, "Oh, I want to come down." But instead of coming down right away what we encourage them to do is just take a moment and take one more step to see how that feels. And in that way, bit by bit, through the opportunities in the program, they do begin to grow the size of their comfort zone. And I think it's just the way that people generally learn and grow anyway. We don't know we're doing it that way, we don't call it that, but we're expanding the size of what we're comfortable with and what is in the realm of possibility for us.

KNOY: It's not a new idea. The Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Outward Bound have all promoted the character-building benefits of the outdoors. But Joanne Stemmerman, director of the Center for Ventures in Girls Education, says preteen girls need special attention. She says her program tries to combat the sexist messages girls start to receive at about age 12.

STEMMERMAN: So girls start to become conscious of the way they look, the way they eat, and all those things are potentially harmful to girls and psychologically damaging as well as potentially physically damaging. And we talk about how to get girls to resist those stereotypes, and the girls that can resist those stereotypes are the girls that can potentially be both psychologically and physically the most healthy.

KNOY: Hanging high above the ground, 13-year-old Colleen found herself with a lot more to worry about than her looks. Colleen was strapped into a harness, clutching a rock face. She leaned back too far. Her foot slipped. She lost her grip, and for a split second Colleen was terrified. But her climbing partner on the rope below caught her. She started again, and finished the climb. Now Colleen is exhilarated by the mental and physical challenge.

COLLEEN: Looking at a rock, if it was any other day I'd say I'm not going to climb that. But just when everyone else is doing it and they're saying it's so fun and you get the lesson, you really, you know you can do it.

KNOY: But it might be too much to expect every teenager will gain in confidence so quickly. Thirteen-year-old Latoya was also part of the climbing group, but she didn't even get close to the rock.

LATOYA: Because I had, I didn't wear the right shoes. And, like, I was tired, so I didn't -- I don't know why.

(Footfalls through foliage.)

WOMAN: Any questions about hiking?


WOMAN: The leaves...

KNOY: It's September now. The air is cool and wet. Slippery leaves cover the ground. The girls are gathered in western Massachusetts for a weekend of hiking and getting reacquainted. Some things haven't changed since July. For one, Latoya is still not a lover of the great outdoors.

LATOYA: I'm just pooped. My legs hurt. I don't have muscles for this. This stinks.

WOMAN: ... look around, you can't see anything higher...

KNOY: And Colleen, the enthusiastic rock climber from this summer, is just as enthusiastic about hiking. So much so that she annoys Latoya and a few others.

COLLEEN: If you go slow, just telling you that. No faster.

LATOYA: Who's going fast. Who's that?

GIRL 1: Speedy.

GIRL 2: Colleen. Speedy.

GIRL 1: Speedy, yeah, we're just gonna call her Speedy from now.

KNOY: Let's face it; when you put a dozen 13-year-olds together for a weekend, it's not going to be all friendship, love, and singing Kumbaya. The girls argue over chores, sleeping arrangements, and the day's activities. But camp counselors say that's okay. In fact, it's important. They say normally girls are taught to avoid conflict and place a higher value on being nice and getting along. Counselors say part of the program is encouraging girls to say what makes them mad and work it out.

GIRL 1: We're doing pretty good now, you guys.

KNOY: All these lessons are valuable, but they can be forgotten after the experience is over. And that's where another piece of the Center's program comes in: mentoring. Each girl is paired with a woman volunteer for at least a year. The mentors and girls get together once a week, talking, going out, hopefully learning from each other. This weekend everyone is gathered to brush up their outdoors skills. Chevan and Latitia think all teenagers should have a mentor.

CHEVAN: Some kids don't go to school, you know, so they need somebody to build them up to go to school, help them out. Like girls having babies at a young age, it teaches you that you're still too young to have a baby. And it also, like say you're having problems with your family, you just, like, you skip school instead of, just because of the problems with your family. It teaches, like, you always have someone to talk to so you won't take it out on your school or your family. You could just, like, talk to that person, figure out how to solve it. So that you won't always end up on the street.

KNOY: Program organizers say the mentors also remind the girls of what they accomplished over the summer. And hopefully, they can help the teens carry the power of those lessons to other parts of their lives. Sherri Chapin is Chevan's mentor.

CHAPIN: Education is very important to me, and I really want to be sure that she takes advantage of all the educational opportunities that are available to her. And that she wants to take advantage of them. She told me today she wants to go to medical school, so we need to start working on that now.

KNOY: The Center will keep track of Chevan's dream of becoming a doctor, and the dreams of the other girls. The organization hopes the outcome will prove that a combination of outdoor adventures and mentoring can help teenage girls keep their self-confidence and help them grow into strong, courageous women.

GIRL: We did the Lion King song. We were singing that a lot.

KNOY: Can you sing it?

TWO GIRLS TOGETHER (singing): In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. In the jungle, the mighty jungle...

KNOY: The girls will head back to the New Hampshire jungle this summer. Meanwhile, they meet as a group and with their mentors regularly. Two teenagers have dropped out of the program. The Center for Ventures in Girls Education is recruiting about 10 more girls to fill those slots and add new members, who will begin with the summer program. And that July week could be even more challenging this time. In addition to climbing and camping, the girls may also do a solo event, going out into the woods alone.

GIRL, singing: Wheeee, ah wheee ah wheeee bom bom bom-a-way...

BOTH GIRLS, singing: Hush, my darling, don't cry my darling, the lion sleeps tonight. Hush, my darling, don't cry my darling, the lion sleeps tonight...



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