The girls scrambled to get ready for the big performance, climbing up and down the stairs from the classroom space on the main floor to the basement where chairs had been set up for the audience of parents and others. The small stage had a piano, microphones and a few pictures of jazz performers.
This was the grand finale of a three-week summer camp designed to empower young girls, teaching them life skills that Diane Darrell Richie hopes they will carry back to school in September and into the world after that.
“We help these young people,” she said. “I feel I get so much from these girls and they are wonderful young ladies. While we hear about all the negativity with young people, here these young people are doing such wonderful things. They do a lot of outside activities; it’s not just here. When they leave me, they go back into their communities. It’s so important that they get involved.”
Richie, a one-time drug prevention coordinator in New York schools, started the Girls Unite summer peer leadership camp in 2010 at Grace Lutheran Church in Bayonne.
Girls Unite is a volunteer-run program that provides leadership and life skills training to girls ages 8 to 13. It also allows them to explore their potential through arts, sports, music, dance, acting, communication workshops, and life skills training. The group continues to meet monthly throughout the school year.
Richie started the program partly because, while teaching, she noticed the deplorable communication skills in many girls and their lack of self-esteem.
Many girls simply didn’t know enough about communication or social skills, and the camp, originally for girls ages 8 to 18, was designed to help them learn simple things such as how to say “thank you” or “please,” how to be more assertive, and how to avoid being intimidated by their peers.
Camp curriculum and changes
The camp’s morning sessions offer instruction in leadership and violence prevention skills, which include communication, anger management, empathy, assertiveness, confrontation, problem solving, team building, and boundary setting. They used, in some cases, role-playing techniques.
But this is a summer camp, after all, so it also featured arts and crafts, board games, and exercise.
“They all have a talent. They play piano, they sing, they play violin, they dance,” said Richie.
The program ran from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each weekday for three weeks, starting July 30.
“In the morning we do group sessions, where we discuss all the skills we need to learn, and after lunch, the teachers come to do the arts and crafts, the dancing, the book-making, the music.”
The program has changed somewhat from when it started two years ago. For one thing, it’s a week longer, three weeks instead of two, and now has a variety of different programs such as self-defense and tennis.
“I teach them some of the basics,” said instructor George Richie of Vee Arinis Jujitsu School. “If they can walk away, they should. If they have no choice, they do what they need to do so that they get home safe. Part of self-defense is that no one has the right to put their hands on you.”
Many of the campers have also changed.
“The girls we had last year have grown and moved on,” Richie said. “This year we have a great group of new girls. The youngest is 8 and the oldest 11. Basically we have the same teachers we had. Most of them are retired like myself, though some are still working as teachers. It’s really great that we have these people. All of them are qualified in the fields they work in.”
One of the new programs this year is bookmaking and each girl read a piece from her book on stage at the end of camp program.
“We want to empower young girls through communication skills.” – Diane Darrell Richie
Yasmin Yarosh, a senior at Bayonne High School, started out as a camper here when the program started in 2010.
“I came here when it first started,” she said, believing that the camp did empower her so that she was ready to come back as a counselor. “When they asked me to step up, I saw it as an opportunity and I couldn’t say no.”
Although she is involved in various aspects, she is especially involved with the dance program this year, and the three-week camp allows her to accumulate community service hours required for graduating high school. She said she is looking ahead towards a career in teaching English and believes her relationship with the campers and her time at camp has taught her to stand up and to communicate.
“I learn a lot from these girls,” she said. “I watch them grow up. It’s very unique, but it’s also sad when I have to watch them leave.”
Jessica Watson, a freshman at the Hudson County Schools of Technology, is eying a career as an interior designer. She was also a camper the first year of the program, and has since been involved as a counselor.
Though she seems shy, Watson said she evolved into a leadership role, especially when she took on the challenge of communicating with the campers.
Nicole Jimenez, also a counselor, is a senior at the Hudson County Schools of Technology with a plan to become a dentist. She did not start out as a camper, but came on as a counselor in 2011.
“I felt that I brought my experience through high school and elementary school, and taught them how to deal with situations, such as how to deal with bullies and other conflicts such as stress in school, outside of school, and at home,” she said. “I think my biggest challenge was just opening up to all these strangers last year. I wasn’t very comfortable in expressing my emotions and problems with all these people. But then after about a week or so, I started getting more comfortable and started to get used to these people, learning about them, and about myself as well.”
She hopes to serve as a counselor again in the future.
Performances from empowered girls
Already quite empowered, young Jenna Sciacchitano, dressed in a pink-and-white striped dress, was among the more theatrical of the students, perfectly willing to perform a full rendition of “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie at the drop of the hat. Each time she was on stage, she gave a sweeping bow, celebrating her own abilities, which were indeed quite remarkable, whether it be singing, dance or even the essays she wrote in her book.
“I learned about how to deal with bullying, and how to problem solve, and how to help others,” she said. “But camp was also a lot of fun.”
Joy Keating did the presentation to the “Tribute Dance: Revelation,” which was done in memory of the victims of the Colorado shooting.
“The introduction is about the Batman movie shooting and how the girls of Unite are going to reach out to the families and the emotions they’ve dealt with,” she said. This is her third year at camp. “I learned how to solve problems and, through words, how to stop physical violence and how talk to my friends when they’re mad. I learned about bullying, about self expression, and about self-esteem.”
Veronica McDuffie, a dance teacher in the New York public school system, was the dance instructor and said that teaching the girls was relatively easy.
“This group is so focused that it took them three sessions to learn what I normally teach in three months,” she said. “They came ready to learn and they were great.”
“I learned how to work with a different group of girls, who care about themselves and love themselves, and they feel proud of what they’re doing and it made me feel good,” McDuffie said.