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Gwen's Girls program returns to Clairton

| Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 3:36 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Gwen's Girls community outreach coordinator Crystaline Barger, center, talks with Clairton students, from left, sixth-grader Amari Spence, seventh-grader Ivori Hale, eighth-grader Courtney Hatch and seventh-grader Rae'Leen Clifford.

After several years on hiatus, the grant-funded Gwen's Girls adolescent support program is back at Clairton Education Center.

With support from the Eden Hall Foundation, Clairton girls in sixth through eighth grades are welcome to take part in weekly “girl talk” sessions that focus on self-esteem, bullying, healthy relationships, healthy choices and puberty.

“We want girls to have a safe, comfortable outlet where they can talk about girl things,” said Crystaline Barger, community outreach coordinator for Gwen's Girls. “It's about addressing gender-specific needs, mentoring girls, and allowing them to have a positive outlet.”

Overwhelmed by statistics of teen pregnancy and girls entering the juvenile justice system, former Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Gwen Elliott founded Gwen's Girls in 2002 as a preventive service to foster resiliency in females under socioeconomic pressure, in addition to the already stressful experience of adolescence.

The agency cites family fragmentation and academic failure as two key underlying factors common to girls entering the juvenile justice system. Gwen's Girls' services are intended to provide a positive outlet for youngsters who are experiencing problems in their personal lives, including an alarming increase in abuse of 12- to 14-year-olds, that are adversely affecting their education and future.

In Clairton, the program was introduced in 2008, but fizzled because of a temporary lack of funding. With the Eden Hall Foundation's newly allocated funds, it again is open to any girl in sixth through eighth grades, regardless of their academic or social needs.

Because the program came back near the end of the 2013-14 school year, participation was limited to one small group that meets weekly during school hours.

“We're especially thankful to have this program back in Clairton, because it's difficult in this day and age to address the needs of every child,” guidance counselor Maureen McGarvey said. “This is the time when they're starting to make dating decisions and their bodies are starting to go through changes. To have a supportive, empowering program just for girls is much needed.”

Deborah Marshall, Clairton principal of cyber and alternative schools, who was middle school principal when Gwen's Girls first came to the district, agreed that teens need all the support they can get as they learn to become productive members of their school and community.

“These are their formative years,” Marshall said. “They start developing lasting friendships and making decisions that can impact the rest of their lives. We want them to know how to make healthy, wise decisions.”

Students said they are comfortable talking with Barger and they can count on her to listen to them and give honest, sound advice.

“We talk to her and she gets it,” eighth-grader Courtney Hatch said. “It's easy for her to understand us.”

Participants said they would recommend Gwen's Girls' programming to their classmates, even if they aren't comfortable being in the same sessions with them.

Next year, students will continue their small-group sessions. With increased registration, room will be made for additional groups.

The program will be available for the 2014-15 school term, with parent permission. Registration forms will be available during school Information Day, scheduled for Aug. 6 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the high school gymnasium.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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