|‘Dream it, Be It’ empowers girls; Scottsbluff students gain traction with Soroptimists’ mentoring|
|December 24, 2015 Frank Marquez|
Photo by Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Students at Choices in Scottsbluff, Echo Biernacki, Hayley Munday and Kiana Baldwin have said the Dream It, Be It program helped them make plans for the future.
You could say 17-year-old Echo Biernacki’s life changed because of a few slices of pizza. Suffering from depression and a lack of direction, she was asked by her school counselor to attend a meeting held by the Scotts Bluff County Chapter of Soroptimist’s International introducing a mentoring program called “Dream It, Be It.”
Last spring semester, Biernacki joined more than a dozen girls who for one day a week for eight weeks, boarded a bus traveling from Scottsbluff High School to meet at the Harms Center on the campus of Western Nebraska Community College. They started out at 11 a.m., ate lunch quickly, then spent 90 minutes meeting with women they now call role models and mentors.
The girls look up to the Soroptimist women, who started the program last spring as part of their mission to improve the lives of women and girls.
Members of the local Soroptimists invited 15 sophomore girls from the Scottsbluff High School and Choices.
Integrally involved, Soroptimist member and a Scottsbluff High school counselor for 37 years, Julia Newman handpicked three other girls – all juniors – who would serve as advisors.
The Soropotimists selected half the girls from Choices, and the other half from the regular high school.
Newman explained how on the surface, Choices is an alternative school, but it’s a different type of environment with a different philosophy. Conducive to the Soroptimist program, “It’s small, with an emphasis on high relationships, offering service and hands-on learning. There, kids are required to take college courses.”
Newman added, “Kids like the smaller environment compared with the larger high school.”
As former director of Counseling at both Scottsbluff High School and current career academy advisor for WNCC, Newman felt uniquely invested in the Dream It, Be It program. “There was much more of a commitment being a Soroptimist, and working in the school system,” Newman said.
With chapters all over the world, the Soroptimist program came with a prescribed curriculum, lasting eight weeks, and presenting topics ranging from gender barriers and success in careers, goal setting, managing stress, dreaming, education, overcoming obstacles, and values.
Soroptimist members facilitate each session, sharing real life experiences with the girls. Other members, who are group leaders, join the girls around tables, helping to keep discussions on point. Among topics, the program broaches the subject of unequal pay for women, and dressing for success, which prompted Choices to require the girls to wear business attire to each session.
“When we started talking about putting this program together, we decided to just jump in and do it,” Newman said. The seasoned counselor had handpicked sophomores as participants because she felt it was a critical stage for girls.
“The curriculum was already laid out,” Newman said. “That part was nice. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are probably a few things we’ve done differently, but for the most part, we follow the curriculum.”
The program continues this fall with its second wave of 12 to 15 girls who attend the sessions. The number of student advisors, now at six, includes three girls from the first group who are now seniors, plus three girls who were participants last spring. The advisors assist with making girls accountable. Ultimately, the girls from the first group who have become advisors will have been exposed to the program for three years. By the time they are seniors next year, they will likely see the returns on what the program has taught them.
Knowing the research-based program already has achieved success, Newman said, “We wanted the girls to participate in every facet of the program. When kids miss, they miss a lot. If they miss one time, it puts them at a disadvantage. That’s one of the things I had the advisors do, was put a little peer pressure on them.”
Senior Pasiensia Amador-Marez, 17, served as one of those advisors for the first group of sophomores last spring. Considering herself a creative type and performing in theatre on top of taking classes such as yearbook, cultural literature, and environmental science, Marez said she’s onboard as an advisor despite her busy schedule.
“When I was a sophomore, we didn’t have programs like that,” she said. “It was just kind of blindly feeling your way to college. I think this program really helped girls feel prepared for college, and life after high school. (The Soroptimists) help you deal with stress, apply to colleges, and find the right path. Things you should know before you graduate high school and go on to college.”
As an advisor, Marez said at different sessions, she sits at different tables. “This way, everyone gets to know each other,” she said.
Involved in theatre, Marez has performed in “The Bacchae” and plans to audition for the musical “Singing in The Rain.” She has aspirations of becoming a film maker. In a session on career planning, she took an interest inventory test that confirmed her personal interest in the arts. As a result, she has her sights set on attending film school in Las Vegas or southern California.
“Kids love to be able to express themselves in different ways – this is just one more way,” Newman said. “At one session, the kids were working on a self-collage. They worked hard to find just the right pictures and articles to represent themselves. Anytime we can reinforce a value system to live by in order for these kids to make decisions, it helps them to become citizens. That’s what we’re doing, helping them to become citizens, sooner rather than later. It’s not like this is somewhere down the road.”
Newman added, “I love my job. I like really taking kids places that open their eyes to something beyond what they know. That’s been the best part of my job. This is one more way to get kids involved outside of the school setting and out into the community.”
Biernacki was also one of the first participants. “One of my teachers said, ‘Hey Echo, do you want to go eat pizza with these people? I said, sure, because it’s pizza.’ Then it was cool, and we started dressing up to go there, looking really nice. It made us feel better. They taught us about making goals, and being strong independent women. It really came in handy for a bunch of stuff going on in my life. It was really awesome. It pulled me out of a depression.”
Biernacki explained she was sad because of some family problems.
“I was looking for a strong independent role model. And, there were several strong independent women (at the first meetings),” she said. “They cared. They were talking to me about what’s going on in my life. They asked me questions, and they remembered my name. And, it just brought me up a bunch.”
Biernacki said she wants to someday become a sweets chef and own a bakery and daycare. During the sessions she learned about some of the schools where she could begin to fulfill her dreams as well as ways to finance her goals.
“They helped me pick out a college called Auguste Escoffier Schools of Culinary Arts (South Dakota). They taught us how to apply for college, and what it looks like at a college,” she said.
Biernacki has yet to apply to college, but said because the culinary school is expensive, she’ll be saving for it. In a session on finances, she said, “One of the Soroptimists members talked about the money challenges, and how to pay for everything – like a house, car, and college.”
Another inaugural participant Kiana Baldwin, 16, said, “At first, I didn’t know what Soroptimist was. I had no clue about what to expect. Once I started going, I realized it was a group of strong independent women that were there to help you. They really helped us with career-wise what Choices was doing. So, it really went hand-in-hand with what we’re doing here at school. It was really nice that they were there to be our mentors to help guide us in what we want to do after we graduate.”
Baldwin, who wants to someday become a certified pediatric oncology nurse, said she would love to go to college, but is yet undecided as to where.
Most memorable to her was a session on overcoming obstacles in which Soroptimist member Patricia Dooley spoke about her son who passed away. Baldwin was struck by how Dooley learned to overcome it, and still managed to go to her job every day. “So, she was one of the women I really looked up to,” Baldwin said. “Everybody goes through hardships. These people were willing to open up about what happened in their life, and how they had to overcome it.”
Newman said, “These kids remember what people say to them. They like to hear what adults have to say about their lives. We’re covering a lot of information, and providing the mentorship. Many career women have overcome obstacles themselves in a working environment. I think kids in general need mentors – as many as they can have. This is just a niche. There are a lot of mentor programs in the area, but this niche really isn’t covered. This is specific to females entering college, and careers.”
Hayley Munday, 17, who was also in the first group of participants, was chosen to become an advisor this fall. “A lot of it was very new to us,” she said. “They talked to us about certain areas which may become difficult, how to set goals, and develop career paths. They talked about career opportunities, which we previously didn’t know about.”
This year, as an advisor, Munday related her own past experiences with the new group of sophomores. “Usually, there are two of us at a table,” she said. “We try to connect our experiences to what they’re going through.”
As a result of the program’s help, Munday decided to follow a career in medicine, more specifically, dentistry.
“School is hard for kids,” Newman said. “Going to these sessions isn’t hard because kids are learning about themselves. They’re talking about themselves, and they understand what they’re doing. Kids need to be successful at something. Some struggle, but whatever we have them do, they can do, and feel pretty good about it. Because it’s not hard stuff, it’s who they are and what they want to do. They feel good when they leave.”
Newman said other area schools have been asked to participate, but for various reasons they have not been able to. In May, the Soroptimists plan a full day for Dream It, Be It, offering an abbreviated version of the sessions for more distant schools needing to coordinate bus travel. The group has so far contacted Minatare, Gering, Mitchell and Morrill, with Morrill as the only school to confirm a date to start sessions.
“It’s important that you find programs like Dream It, Be It, that provide a really solid mentor program in the community,” Newman said. “We still need to work at girls living up to their full potential.”