A silhouette of a woman’s face hung on the bulletin board in the East Elementary School’s art room.
Within five minutes, brightly colored Post-It notes surrounded her. They each expressed an array of adjectives — nice, dependable, fun, reliable, positive, honest, caring, trustworthy, amazing.
Then came the question that prompted the words to be shared.
“So what are those words you used to describe characteristics you would want in your BFF?” said Bonita Butner, a member of the recently chartered Central Missouri Chapter of The Links, Inc.
About a dozen 8- to 10-year-old girls shared their responses and reasons those qualities were so important to them.
This opened the door to an hour-long, candid discussion about what it means to have a good friend and be a great friend at the Feb. 7 SMART Girls program session. Laughing, singing and talking filled the room as The Links members and the young ladies compared qualities seen in both female and male friends, practiced saying “friend” in other languages and worked together to complete a friend-themed word search.
The meaningful conversations shared among the professional women and young girls emulated the words describing a BFF on the Post-It notes. Any one of their faces could have replaced the silhouette of the woman.
The girls attending these SMART Girls sessions know they have a friend in the Links volunteers or the Boys & Girls club staff helping them navigate their way through adolescence.
They gain self-confidence, leadership skills and healthier lifestyle choices along the way. By the end of the program, its administrators hope each young girl knows she also has a friend in herself.
Becoming ‘SMART Girls’
SMART (Skills Mastery And Resistance Training) Girls is held weekly through the academic year at the organization’s six sites in Jefferson City, including East Elementary School.
The program, which targets ages 8-17, helps girls develop a healthy attitude and lifestyle, acquire and maintain a positive self-concept and sound decision-making skills, and mentor relationships. It allows a young lady to reach her full potential, understand inner beauty and enhance her self-esteem.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of America has provided the nationally accredited SMART Girls program to its chapters for many years. However, an eye-opening exercise at an all-girls lock-in event prompted the Jefferson City chapter to introduce the program locally in 2012.
Stephanie Johnson, executive director of Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City, said about 30 girls stayed overnight at the club’s former facility, participating in beauty activities, talks and interactive experiences. One exercise asked the girls to pass around a hand-held mirror, look at themselves and describe the beauty within each of them.
“What two young ladies said was so devastating to me as a woman, I knew we had to do something,” she said.
Johnson said one girl saw “stupid,” explaining that is what certain family members had continuously told her. She had ambitions of being a veterinarian but thought she was too stupid to pursue it. Another girl said she saw nothing of beauty, not being able to see past her perception of physical flaws, Johnson said.
That is when Johnson and staff knew they needed to bring the SMART Girls program to their community.
“As a woman, you don’t want to see girls see themselves like that, so we have been diligent about this SMART Girls program for years now. We believe that our girls need it,” she said.
The Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City funds the SMART Girls program from the Unilever Foundation, which provides a grant for the program curriculum to each Boys & Girls Club that has a Unilever plant in their community, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health, which issues funding to help implement the curriculum to every club in the state.
The Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City follows the national organization’s outcome-driven SMART Girls curriculum. The program involves a pre-test and post-test, along with a graduation celebration and awards.
The girls participate in weekly sessions that delve into topics such as “You’re Super Awesome,” “Your Friends, the Media and You,” “Keep It Clean!” “Eating Well, Staying Fit” “What’s With Bullies?” and “We Are Family.”
“It really is about helping girls with self-esteem, finding inner beauty, understanding healthy relationships and setting goals for themselves. Unfortunately we live in a world right now where there is a lot of bullying, and girls can be mean to each other,” Johnson said. “This program helps girls not only feel good about themselves, but also how we as females need to treat each other.”
The SMART Girls sessions are broken down by age — 8-10, 11-13 and 14-18 — with topics discussed at age-appropriate levels. After each session, they earn a badge, such as “Media Maven” and “Queen of Clean.” For the girls, it is not only about earning rewards; it is about learning life lessons.
Take the “Nice Girl” session, for example.
“Girls can be bullies,” said Racquel Shipp, East Elementary School coordinator for Boys & Girls Club. “Some girls have attitude from the top. They keep the attitude, and they don’t care. But when we get to talking about these things, such as being mean to another girl and how that makes them feel, or being mean to anyone and how would you feel if that was being done to you, our girls look at that and think, ‘Oh.’ It teaches them empathy. …
“After that session, we might as well have a party. It really changes things for a lot of the girls.”
Shipp and other Boys & Girls Club personnel lead many of the SMART Girls sessions. However, the partnership with The Links chapter allows the girls to hear, absorb and discuss vital information from other professional women in their community, as well.
“A lot of the girls and boys we serve at Boys & Girls Club come from poverty. When they look at some of the adults in their life, they may not see a lot of people who are successful, whether it is in their career or life choices,” Johnson said. “When we bring in a group like The Links, they are able to see successful adults. They look professional, they talk professional, and they are. They are all educated, career-oriented women. It is great for our girls to see that and say, ‘This could be me.’
‘Linked in friendship, connected in service’
With lighthearted humor and fun, the girls at the Feb. 7 SMART Girls session saw The Links members helping them, find many of the words they earlier described as a BFF.
They also saw successful women — lawyers, educators, real estate agents, IT specialists, marketing consultants — provide an open ear to the girls’ opinions. Like the Boys & Girls Club staff, they see The Links members as friends and mentors.
The Central Missouri Chapter of The Links is also proud of the partnership, declaring SMART Girls as the group’s signature service program.
The chapter conducts SMART Girls sessions every week, alternating between a group of 8- to 10-year-olds in Jefferson City and a group of 11- to 15-year-olds in Columbia.
The collaboration with SMART Girls in Jefferson City started in September 2013, before the group became an official chapter of the international The Links organization. They were then known as Central Missouri Women’s Connection (CMWC).
CMWC started with approximately 20 ladies residing in Columbia and Jefferson City with a commitment to service and an interest in forming a chapter of The Links, one of the oldest and largest volunteer service organizations in the nation.
Founded in 1946 by two young Philadelphia matrons, Margaret Hawkins and Sarah Scott, The Links was established on the concept of friendship but also was committed to enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African Americans and other persons of African ancestry. Now, the nonprofit corporation continues its mission, boasting membership of nearly 14,000 professional women of color in 283 chapters located in 41 states, the District of Columbia and the Bahamas.
The local group gathered in September 2012 at Lincoln University, where Benecia Williams volunteered to function as the point person in assessing interest in the area. Meetings were held over the next several months, and CMWC was formed. After a process of more than two years, CMWC was chartered as the 283rd chapter of The Links on April 30, 2016.
With Williams serving as the chapter’s president, the 36 members of the Central Missouri chapter continue to provide strong service in Jefferson City and Columbia, engaging in regular programming activities that focus on five main facets of The Links: services to youth, the arts, national trends and services, international trends and services, and health and human services.
They have continued many efforts as CMWC and garnered new initiatives. Activities include food drives benefiting The Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri and Samaritan Center; supporting the Columbia Public Schools’ Buddy Pack program; service programs at the Bluffs Nursing Center in Columbia; sisterly outreach and arts programming at the McCambridge Center in Columbia; a partnership with Lincoln University to donate bottled water to Flint, Michigan, residents; and its ongoing partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Columbia and Jefferson City through workshops and SMART Girls.
One focus of the Central Missouri chapter of The Links is childhood obesity. Workshops on healthier lifestyle, eating and moving through the Boys & Girls Club continue to be included in the chapter’s programming.
“We want to see children change their world through transformation programming, and we are truly engaged in our community through various activities,” said Wanda Seeney, chairwoman for the chapter’s communications and public relations committee. “We want the people to know we are here, we are working, and we are a resource to serve their needs and answer those needs of the community.”
Their tag line, “linked in friendship, connected in service,” is active in their daily lives. As service to the community is of great importance, friendship is also a major component of the organization.
The chapter members participate in monthly social gatherings, such as attending movies, participating in Lincoln University Homecoming parades, watching Mizzou football games and eating out at local restaurants.
“The sisterhood and friendship stood out to me,” Williams said. “I don’t just feel that friendship locally and in our chapter, but also as president when I go to the other conferences and contact Links from other areas. The sisterhood, concern and interest in wanting to make sure we all do well and help each other for the purpose of making the world a better place really touches my heart.”
The impact SMART Girls can make
Many moments experienced among the girls, the Boys & Girls Club staff, The Links members and the parents have touched their hearts.
Starting the SMART Girls program in second grade, 10-year-old J’Kayla Lee didn’t realize the diversity of activities and mentors that would be involved. Even though the same curriculum is used each year, each SMART Girls session is presented in a fun, interesting and educational way. Lee has enjoyed many of them and absorbed them into her life.
One of her favorites was a healthy plate activity, which taught the girls about the four main food groups. They also got to eat healthy foods, and she now often enjoys granola bars as a snack. She also took a self-esteem assessment test, developed 2017 goals for a healthier lifestyle, participated in holiday parties, and exercised through a special Zumba session with volunteers from The Links.
Pam Nunnelly, vice president of programming for the Central Missouri Chapter of The Links, works closely with Shipp and the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City to adhere to the organization’s curriculum during the sessions they lead, while presenting programming that also meets facets of The Links. During sessions led by The Links, the girls have created a healthy plate using foods from the five food groups, developed health journals and an “All About Me” self-esteem collage, conducted a brain cap activity to show how to nurture both sides of their brains, discussed female images in the media, and learned how to take care of their bodies.
“You are ensuring these girls understand they are all uniquely beautiful and awesome,” she said. “We have enjoyed building relationships and friendships with these girls. They see these adult women as friends. They learn they can not only be positive with their peers but also with each other, and reach out to their community. That will translate into their adulthood and with their own children.”
Shipp has seen results from the SMART Girls program firsthand. Those results are not just among the girls she helps teach during the program’s sessions as part of her duties at East Elementary School. She also sees it in her eldest daughter, a fifth-grader who continues to participate in SMART Girls every year.
“Being at SMART Girls has taught her to become a person where she knows she has to love herself first. It made her so confident in who she is that she has blossomed into everything,” Shipp said. “I don’t need to tell her she is beautiful, she knows it. …. These girls have become leaders and want to do things with their future.”