When seventh-grader Kelise Baugh came to the first Girls Empowerment Zone after-school program session at Lewis and Clark Middle School, she didn't know what to expect.
She entered a commons room Feb. 26 alongside about a dozen of her fellow female students to find young women seated at tables. After being asked to sit near one of these women, Baugh chose a seat next to Jada Hunter.
Hunter, a freshman at Lincoln University, is one of 20 female students who have volunteered as a mentor for the program that builds confidence and character of girls using the voices and talents already inside of them. In fact, these women also have sought help through the LU Women's Resource Center, which is part of the collaborative effort of Lewis and Clark Middle School and Lincoln University Cooperative Extension.
When all the mentors and mentees dove into an entertaining and informative introductory exercise during that first session, Baugh and Hunter easily fell into conversation. They learned interesting facts about each other, laughed and enjoyed sharing some of those details with the rest of the group.
"I thought, 'I can work with her,'" Baugh said as the two smiled. "She is pretty and funny."
With an even more interactive and engaging session looking at 2019 goals and creating vision boards on March 5, Baugh, Hunter and all the young ladies involved in the Girls Empowerment Zone are excited and eager to work together to become better, successful people. And its founder and director, Callie Newsom, can't wait to see this program continue to grow.
Newsom, area educator in youth development for Lincoln University Cooperative Extension, knows what it is like to need someone standing in your corner. The 24-year-old grew up in Chicago and attended inner city schools, saying she simply felt she was often experiencing life without the kind of support she truly needed.
"I created this program because I know what it is like going through big life events and not having people and a place to coax and shape you along the way," she said. "They now experience life even younger. They have these real life challenges — cyberbullying is a real thing. They deal with depression and suicidal thoughts, and mental health is on the riseGrowing up, I wish I had somebody that could have came in earlier and just do these things that help make you successful in the end."
Newsom had a few mentors back in Chicago, but when she came to Lincoln University, she found additional mentors that helped shape her to be the successful woman she is today.
Now holding a bachelor's and master's degree in business administration, Newsom deals directly with youth in her work and through her church, the Joshua House. Her job is split between managing a teen pregnancy and prevention group that takes her to five counties in the Missouri Bootheel, Kansas City and St. Louis. The youth all come together once a year in Jefferson City for a Rites of Passage ceremony where they can network and share in their experiences learning about STDs, HIV, abstinence and other topics. She also oversees many programs, including a slew of camps for youth, such as an agriculture discovery, sports, outdoor ranger and medical camp.
She works with area youth and has the chance to develop programs, like the Girls Empowerment Zone. From both her work and personal experience, Newsom saw statistics matched her thoughts on needed mentorship for young girls, particularly those in middle school.
According to Newsom's research, statistics show young people who have no positive figure of the same gender are statistically more likely to feel suicidal than those who do. In total, more than a third of youngsters — 34 percent — admitted to having felt suicidal at some point, but this figure rose to 42 percent for those without a positive figure in their lives. In addition, out of 2,170 16-25 year olds, research revealed one in three young men and almost a quarter of young women have no positive figure to look up to. This was likely to have an impact on their mental well-being and outlook on life, Newsom found in her research.
A Girl Scout research institute survey found more young African-American girls aspire to be leaders compared to any other group — 53 percent compared to 50 percent of Hispanic and 34 percent of Caucasian girls. Yet, by the time they reach high school, just 11 percent of African-American girls were still nursing those dreams.
"The statistics for teenage pregnancy, school dropout and early sexual activity is at an all-time high. Providing these young women with support and education they need to prevent these hurdles from arising gives them a better chance at reaching and finishing college and venturing into the career world as successful women," Newsom said.
Newsom said middle school children are the ones that especially fall through the cracks.
"You have organizations and community programs at the elementary schools and in your high school. Now, your middle schools are hit it or miss it," she said. "It is also where those behavior issues start to form, as well as self-esteem, confidence and identity issues that continue to shape and form and will continue for the rest of their lives if they don't have someone walking alongside of them to give them those positive affirmations and that correction when needed."
Newsom knew action was needed and approached her supervisor with the concept of the Girls Empowerment Zone. The program's mission is to provide girls a safe environment to grow to become tomorrow's effective leaders, compassionate citizens and empowered women in their community. Through intergenerational mentorship, girls, ages 10-14, follow their goals, aspirations and dreams under the guidance of women who have or are finding their own success in life.
To achieve this, Newsom and the Lincoln University Cooperative Extension partnered with the Women's Resource Center to bring this program to Lewis and Clark Middle School.
"The center had young ladies that are still being trained and groomed at college life. This is a perfect way to show young ladies that college ladies are still being shaped, groomed and fine-tuning themselves to be even better with mentoring, as well," she added.
After the first two sessions, Newsom plans for the group to meet to meet twice a month through the end of this school year, learning while enjoying unique activities and, most importantly, having fun.
"We will do a confidence boosting activity called Beauty Behind the Beat, looking internally at ourselves with a mirror exercise. We'll look at stress release (in one activity) and different ways to cope with stress. We'll also talk about cyberbullying and bullying, partnering with the Lincoln University Police Department and other community leaders who will talk with the ladies," Newsom said. "Then we'll launch 'her story,' which is where they will come back to their 2019 goals they started with their vision boards this week. They will then fine tune those goals and how they can progress with those on their own, discovering how to tell their own personal stories. On May 7, we'll have our end of the year celebration."
However, the connections made between mentees and mentors will not end there.
"This year, our eight-graders will be graduating and we'll go to those graduations. We can be there for them and be there for their big upcoming life events, staying in touch with them," Newsom added.
Planning to launch the program again in the 2019-20 school year at Lewis and Clark Middle School, Newsom also wants to expand the program to Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Jefferson City's alternative school.
Newsom is taking the Girls Empowerment Zone one step at a time but has already seen the success in the program. While the group was talking about its experience in 2018 and looking ahead to 2019 goals, she heard how the girls and mentors were planning for their futures.
"Listening to the ladies on Tuesday talking about their goals — 'I'm going to get into less fights' and 'I am learning how to control my attitude and anger' — they are getting this now how you can set up to be successful," she said. "Now, they have these women who have gone through the same things helping them as they go through those things. . You have someone rooting for you and holding you accountable. You reach back and pull each other up. That is how we can create a better community and for young ladies growing up in Jefferson City. It starts with a seed and we just see how and where it grows."
Baugh is already impressed by Hunter, saying she is "pretty and funny." Hunter equally is impressed by Baugh, seeing how much she has grown between the first two sessions.
"I have been helping Kelise grow a lot and I see her improving already. Some of the things she was doing the first time, she is now growing from and wants to be better," Hunter said.
Baugh said she enjoyed putting together her vision board with her 2019 goals, adding how she wants to continue her pursuit with basketball and be nicer to others. Her mentor Hunter added a favorite scripture and other important things she feels will have special meaning by being involved in the Girls Empowerment Zone.
"This (board) is more personal to me than my last one because I want to grow as a person, too, while I help these girls," Hunter said. "I feel like everyone needs someone to look up to and everyone needs someone who is a good example of who they can be when they get older and walk that path in their own lives. I am looking forward to seeing how my mentee grows from now through the program."