Alexis Pite may not have had the courage to follow her dream if it hadn’t been for a group of local women that inspired her during her early teen years.
In 1998, Pite was chosen by her teachers to participate in Teen Esteem, a program that helps girls in Grades 6, 7 and 8 explore their potential, bolster their self-esteem and set goals for their futures.
“The idea that all of the co-ordinators put forth to the kids was that you deserve to get what you want, you deserve to succeed in life,” Pite said. “I think every kid needs something like that.”
Today, Pite is attending Mohawk College to become a child and youth worker.
Presented by women of varying professions in the Brant community – all of whom volunteer their time – Teen Esteem has given girls like Pite renewed faith in themselves at a time when they need it most, said co-ordinator and program co-founder Karen Williamson of YMCA Employment, Training and Settlement Services, Hamilton, Burlington, Brantford.
Armed with a 1992 report released by the federal government showing a girl’s self-esteem drops dramatically between the ages of 12 and 16, Williamson, Trish Kings, Betty Anne Jackson, Colleen Miller and Lucy Marco in 1993 launched a program that would influence their daughters and other teens in a positive way.
In 1998, Christina Cowell was one of them.
“I was encouraged to go through the program by my parents because I was not a confident kid at all,” Cowell said. “I had some problems with depression due to bullying and home situation.”
Then 12 years old and in Grade 6, Cowell approached the program with skepticism, but found herself enjoying time spent with co-ordinators of what was then dubbed “The Lunch Bunch.”
“The volunteers, I remember, were supportive,” she said. “They shared their stories and they gave you that glimmer of hope when you’re 12 years old and have no direction and don’t think that there is any hope.
“It gave you the idea that you could do better for yourself.”
With a boost in self-confidence, Cowell stopped listening to bullies and focused her attention on getting more involved in school.
“I became an active member of students’ council in Grades 7 and 8 and I went on to join some sports teams,” she recalled. “The things that started to compound after (Teen Esteem) gave me that boost to keep going.”
Cowell, who works at YMCA as a youth outreach worker, is one of 30 to 40 women who will volunteer their time to present the six-week Teen Esteem program to four elementary schools this year. Six different volunteer groups will each present themed workshops for one week, addressing issues like bullying, body image, volunteering, goal setting and career choices.
“We talk a lot about bullying,” probation and parole officer Georgia Sonnenberg said. “Whether you are standing beside a person that is being a bully or bullying someone yourself, you are still contributing to that.”
By speaking of instances when they were bullied or were bullies, volunteers engage with teens and show them they are not alone. The young women act as role models for the girls.
“They relate to it and realize it does get better,” Sonnenberg said. “We encourage them to tell the teachers, or social workers, or parents, or call the Kids Help Line if they are having issues.
“Making them aware that those resources are out there for them is a big thing.”
Child and youth worker Nicole Wilhelm said many girls have low self-esteem because of how social media portrays women.
“I also had feelings of self-doubt with my own body image growing up, so I just felt a connection that way,” she said.
Financial planner Susan McDowell said volunteering can also bolster self-esteem.
“You can make great relationships out of it, or maybe get some job skills,” McDowell said. “Maybe it gives you some direction to things you like, things you might want to pursue. Even if your situation might not be great, there is always someone that might need your help.”
Other team leaders include certified personal trainer Meaghan VanPypen and lawyer Anita Menon. About 30 more volunteers are needed to present the program beginning Feb. 11.
“I’m concerned about the media presentations of women and what makes you worthy and the emphasis on unhealthy body image and what makes you important as a woman,” Williamson said. “There is a lot less emphasis on accomplishment and contribution to the world than there is on pleasing someone and looking good.”
For more information, contact Williamson at 519-751-4357 ext. 41, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. People are also invited to attend the program kick-off at the Brantford Police Service station community room on Jan. 19 from 9 a.m. until noon.