On her first day working at the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV) in 2005, Dolores Singletary discussed starting an empowerment program for girls with CACLV executive director Alan Jennings while he took her on a tour of the center, as he does with all new hires.
Thirteen years later, Singletary has now seen the completion of the first year of such a program as its director.
SHE, which stands for Self-Esteem, Health and Education, as well as She Has Everything, is an after school program for fifth grade girls at Fountain Hill Elementary School in Bethlehem. The goal of the program is to teach young girls how to feel good about themselves, so they are able to better define who they are and to think about their futures in a positive way.
Both Singletary and Jennings emphasized the importance of teaching young girls to stand up for themselves and not to rely on the men in their lives. One of SHE’s goals is teaching girls to feel better about themselves, so that they will not be as easily susceptible to being swayed into things like early pregnancy, gang involvement, rape, sex trafficking and bullying, according to Singletary.
“I think women are the greater of the species,” Jennings said. “We need to do whatever we can to support them in the face of so many problems that are caused by men.”
When Singletary originally envisioned SHE, she wanted it to primarily focus on young teenagers around 14 or 15 years old. After forming a steering committee and consulting with educators, CACLV realized that in order to make an impact, SHE would have to start at a much earlier age than originally planned.
The educators on the steering committee encouraged the facilitators of SHE to start as early as possible, while girls are still at an impressionable age.
“It was a huge shock for us,” Singletary said.
Since shifting the focus of SHE to the elementary level, members of the Community Action Committee decided to start the program at Fountain Hill largely in part due to the demographics of the school’s student body.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s reports of low income rates in the state’s public schools, 89.7 percent of families at Fountain Hill were classified as low income in the 2017-2018 school year. Out of 515 students at the school, 462 are from low income families.
“The students we serve at our high-need school, especially girls, are so vulnerable during their elementary school years,” said Paige Hoffman, community school coordinator at Fountain Hill Elementary School. “A program that provides the opportunity to not only learn, but also to talk about and work through the emotions and concerns that young girls face today, is so important and needed.”
The program came to fruition after being an idea of Jennings’ for so long largely due to a donation from Murat Guzel, a local businessman who has two young daughters of his own. Guzel decided to fund this program after talking to Jennings about it and being inspired by the idea, according to both Singletary and Ginny Sandoval, who is a facilitator of the program.
“Those two gentlemen, as strange as it sounds, decided that they’re going to start a girl’s empowerment program,” Sandoval said. “It’s ironic — the girls in our program, one of the rules that they made is ‘no boys allowed,’ and when I tell them that the program was actually created by two males, that surprises them.”
Sandoval emphasized the importance of making the distinction between hating men and building healthy relationships with men to the girls in the program. Both she and Singletary said that just because they are teaching girls how to be independent from men doesn’t mean that they should hate them.
Instead, they are trying to teach them that they are valuable too.
This year’s group of participants had the opportunity to meet with Guzel at a dinner on Oct. 23, 2018 at Hotel Bethlehem. Singletary said that for the majority of the girls, this was their first fancy “grown-up” meal out.
Last May, the program saw its first class of “graduates,” although the facilitators are working to implement follow-up programs at Broughal Middle School as well as at the high school level.
Throughout the 22-week program, Singletary said that the girls came out of their shells and started to stand up for themselves. She said that parents and teachers noticed substantial changes in the girls’ behavior at home and at school.
One of the graduates said last year to Singletary that, “I really like the young woman I am becoming since I got involved in SHE.”