“Aishia (an alias used to protect her identity)” likens the openness she feels in the Working on Womanhood program at her school to a family gathering around the table at Thanksgiving.
“You are never judged,” the junior at Chicago’s Kelvyn Park High School said. “The group is for anyone. You can come as broken or as perfect as you can be. You are not going to be looked at as a bad person or anything no matter what you have to say.”
The WOW program at Kelvyn Park, located in the Hermosa neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side, is one of 31 coordinated efforts by the Youth Guidance agency aimed at helping 1,750 girls in grades 7-12 this school year.
WOW is a school-based, trauma-informed, cognitive behavioral therapy-centered counseling program that works to improve the social-emotional and behavioral competencies of young women. Its curriculum focuses on five core values: self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, visionary goal-setting and leadership.
Through weekly sessions throughout the year, WOW participants engage in activities and discussions designed to improve self-image, self-worth and social skills.
After seeing the success of Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man program in the early 2000s and 2010s, Gail Day, a longtime youth counselor, helped start the WOW program six years ago with the help of five other women.
“The question kept coming up ‘What about the girls?’” Day said.
The six women, who all had been doing counseling their whole YG careers, joined forces in 2010 and pulled together best practices they had been using throughout the years
“In 2010, our girls were going through a series of situations: fighting, cyber-bullying, a lot of self-harming behaviors,” Day said. “From those experiences with our girls, it helped us to think about core values that we could create, develop and provide curriculum to address some of those issues that they were going through.”
The WOW program started in six schools and grew to 21 schools last year. Program sites number 31 this school year and cover both Chicago elementary and secondary public schools, as well as Proviso East High School in Maywood. Thirty-four WOW counselors work in tandem with public school social workers and other staff to address students’ well-being.
Day said girls have to know who they are and what their values are in order to successfully navigate the teenage years.
“We knew that girls are relational. Therefore, we knew that we needed to have a core value around healthy relationship and knowing boundaries,” Day remembered.
She said making girls aware of what they are feeling and how to manage those feelings is paramount to the program. Once girls have learned the building blocks, including how to understand their feelings and emotions, Day said, they are ready to learn about leadership.
“Once they get there, it is their time to turn around, reach back and help other girls as leaders,” Day said. “First of all, they have to become leaders of themselves before they can become leaders of others.”
Day said the vision is for there to be a WOW program in every school where there is a Becoming a Man program. BAM currently serves more than 2,600 students at 50 sites in 33 Chicago communities.
“The demand is high. The need is high,” Day said of the two YG counseling programs.
Daisy Gomez, the WOW counselor at Kelvyn Park, worked with students from alternative schools in the Chicago Public School system before joining WOW. She said creating a welcoming environment is vital for the life-skills program to succeed.
“You need to build rapport with them,” Gomez said. “They come in guarded. You need to work to communicate with them, to share things in an informative way. It can be challenging.”
Gomez works with teen girls to be mindful of situations and teaches them relaxation techniques to turn to when stress emerges.
“They learn what to do in situations without things being on a confrontational basis,” the WOW counselor said.
“Aishia” said she has learned a lot by being in the program for more than two years. She got involved with WOW during her freshman year when she was dealing with the loss of her grandmother.
“It was a tough year,” she said.
She said group members get to know each other and when someone needs to vent something.
“Everyone involved reads what is up with everyone else,” “Aishia” said.
— Working on Womanhood emphasizes values with Chicago’s teen girls —-