PERRY -- Growing up can be hard to do, but a group at The Westfield School is trying to make that process a little easier for middle school girls.
The private school’s chapter of Girl Talk held its first meeting Wednesday, and about 50 girls showed up. The turnout impressed one of the club’s sponsors, Mary Jane Kinnas, and spoke to the interest -- and the need -- for such a setting.
“We’re thrilled, very excited,” she said.
Started in Albany by Haley Kilpatrick in 2002, Girl Talk has reached an estimated 40,000 girls in 46 states and seven countries. The goal of the group, which also has a chapter at Stratford Academy in Macon, is to “help girls to get through their challenging middle school years, with the help of high school girls,” according to the Girl Talk website.
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Jaqui Wilson, the sponsor for Stratford’s chapter, said that school saw a similarly impressive turnout in the first weeks, which caught the organizers “off guard.” In its second year, the group still draws nearly all 38 of its sixth-graders as well as 15 to 20 girls from seventh and eighth grade.
“They’re looking for a connection,” Wilson said of the middle schoolers. “I think the cool thing about Girl Talk (is) ... it is literally led by the high school girls.”
Girl Talk meets every other Wednesday at Westfield. The Stratford chapter meets weekly, with a different middle school grade attending each week.
The universal nature of the club’s message is a big part of the draw, said Courtney Thompson, director of programs for Girl Talk’s national organization. Besides connecting with older girls, the middle schoolers like knowing that their peers are experiencing the same things they are.
“Girl Talk really addresses the issues that every single girl is facing,” Thompson said. “It builds up a little security where they felt insecure.”
To start a chapter, Westfield had to find interested high school girls to lead the group. That’s an important aspect of Girl Talk, said Kay Grier, another of the club’s sponsors at Westfield.
“They’re going to learn from older girls much more than they’re going to learn from adults,” she said.
Those types of connections are more important in the modern tech-savvy society than ever before, said Grier, who’s also the school’s director of counseling.
“In today’s time when there’s so much social media, the more positive that goes into their lives, the more we talk face to face, ... the better relationships they build throughout high school,” she said.
Wilson noted specific lessons the younger girls at Stratford have learned about that social media interaction.
“That it’s permanent and that other people can see it,” she said.
Friendship was the main topic of conversation at Westfield’s meeting, with the older students leading discussion among groups of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. The girls discussed 10 characteristics of being a true friend, such as loyalty and not being critical of appearance.
The message resonated with the middle schoolers.
“I think it’s very important because you can find your best friends in that way,” said Sloan Grinstead, a 12-year-old sixth-grader.
Grinstead and fellow sixth-grader Lindsey Easom, 11, said they also talked about avoiding gossip. They appreciated the chance to hear from older students who have seen the ups and downs of transition through middle school.
“They’ve been our age before, and they know what it’s like now,” Easom said.
Junior Reema Patel, 16, was part of the group leading the Westfield session. She said the lessons learned will assist the girls in the maturity department, which in turn will help them when they get to high school.
“These girls are really going to grow up with each other. Me and my friends have,” she said. “You go through your ups and downs, but in the end, your friendship remains the same.”
The group discussed talking about body image in the coming weeks, a lesson that the Stratford chapter covered last month.
Wilson said one of the big takeaways from that discussion was that each person has something about themselves that they don’t like, and other people may not even see that aspect as a flaw.
“We got a call from a parent that afternoon saying that their daughter got home, and that was exactly something she needed to hear,” Wilson said.
The program also has benefits for the older girls, offering leadership opportunities and a chance to give back to the school. Grier said she wanted to start the mentoring program for girls first, but she has no intention of ignoring their male counterparts in the long run.
“I don’t want it to just be girls and leave the guys out,” she said.
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.