When she thinks about growing up, 11-year-old Keiana  has a lot of questions.

Girls' mentors try group setting to break ice

Keiana Taylor's mentor, Jennifer Tennant, 33, has answers for many of them, but the sensitive topic might have been awkward for the newly matched pair in a traditional Big Sister relationship.

Keiana of Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood and Tennant, a Lakeview resident, found an outlet to talk about body image at Girl World Builders, a 13-week program that allows mentoring matches to get to know each other in a group setting, rather than the more usual one-on-one meetings. The group emphasis has worked so well that other Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations in Chicago are adopting it as a model for all-girl programs.

"You're matched with people who you've never known before in your whole life," said Tennant. "It's more of an icebreaker to come and do this as a group and get to know each other."

The weekly meetings also create an environment in which girls can discuss women's issues that may not come up at home. Organizers say the supportive community becomes a safe arena where mentoring pairs can share their thoughts.

"I think we address things here that maybe we could not address in another match," said Maureen Gauntner, a co-director of Girl World Builders and outreach coordinator with Big Brothers Big Sisters. "We emphasize building a community of women and girls, which includes learning to work together as a team."

The idea of linking Big Sister mentors with female-oriented programs arose from a 1995 all-girls' discussion that also inspired the creation of Girl World at Alternatives Inc., a youth and family organization on Chicago's North Side. The Girl World Builders program was jointly organized in response to girls' requests for more adult mentors.

The program also has helped Big Brothers Big Sisters reach out to little girls. The organization typically has more women interested in mentoring than little girls with whom to pair them. It found that some girls and their mothers prefer starting with the weekly group activity to a traditional mentoring match, where mentors meet privately with their little sisters two to four times a month, according to the co-coordinators of Girl World Builders.

"The `littles' just have an opportunity to meet their big sister not one-on-one but in a less threatening situation," said Jessica Palmert-Ferrara, a co-coordinator of Girl World Builders and the program coordinator for Girl World. "They are much more comfortable with each other when they later go out on their own."

The get-acquainted sessions focused on women's issues foster especially close bonds between the partners, said Janet Takehara, program director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago. "The double commitment to both the program and each other creates a very strong bond in the match," she said.

The success of the Girl World program prompted Big Brothers Big Sisters to start two other programs on a similar model in Rogers Park. And other Big Brothers Big Sisters sites in Chicago are interested in adding a group component to their mentor relationships.

"We feel we've hit on something," Takehara said.

Little sisters also are encouraged in the group discussions to practice their reading and public speaking. In a recent session on body image and self-esteem, mentors helped their little sisters to sound out new vocabulary words such as "femininity" and "curvaceous." Then they discussed the concepts to help the girls understand.

Before the discussion, Ife Adebiyi, 9, had not thought about role models such as Destiny's Child and Jennifer Lopez as representing unrealistic female body images. She said the workshop helped her to realize that "you don't have to be skinny to be fashionable."  Her mentor, Amy Casaclang, 24, said complex ideas about body image would have been difficult to bring up alone with Ife because the 4th grader struggles to stay focused, so the group program is a basis for future conversations.

Girls and their mentors at Girl World Builders say the ethnically diverse group exposes them to different perspectives on women's issues.  "Instead of just having a big sister with you, you learn a lot of stuff," said 9-year-old Evelyn Vargas.  Coming together as a group also provides a support network for big sisters, who can be overwhelmed by the problems of their little sisters, organizers said.

Not all the bonding activities at Girl World Builders touch upon female-specific problems. Participants this fall have taken a rope course and volunteered in a homeless shelter. The program aims to broaden horizons, while helping to start conversations between the new sisters outside the group setting.

The body-image discussion did just that for Keiana Taylor. "It's good talking about women who have been through something already, who have to go through many different things, good things and bad things," she said.


By Letitia Stein Tribune staff reporter Published November 4, 2001




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