HEFLIN — Hailey Garner applied to the Cleburne County 4-H organization’s Be Extreme Inside and Out program in 2013 because she thought it would be fun to meet girls from other schools in the county.
But she got something else out of it, Garner said. It sounds cheesy, she said, “but I feel maybe a teensy, weensy bit better about myself.”
The program challenged her perception of herself and made her realize that although she never saw herself as a “girly girl,” she is in fact pretty and likes wearing a dress once in a while, she said.
The program, to be held July 14-17 this year, is celebrating its 12th year of inspiring “tween-age” girls — 12-15 — to become leaders in their communities, and the administrators are overwhelmed by the response.
Maureen Markley, one of the founders of the program, said she has seen girls totally transform during the weeklong makeover program.
“I was able to witness, when I was a social worker in the schools, the transformations,” Markley said. “It’s just unbelievable.”
The program includes hair and makeup tips, a shopping trip and lunch at a “white-tablecloth restaurant,” but those are just the “glitzy skills” that help get the girls interested, said Debby Mathews, Cleburne County Extension coordinator.
It also includes lessons in self-defense from a taekwondo instructor, relationship skills and dating smarts from staff at 2nd Chance, a women’s shelter, team-building and leadership skills from a Jacksonville State University professor and graduate students.
Markley, Tina Riddle and Darlene Davis created the program after looking at statistics on sexually-transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies within the Cleburne County school system, Markley said. The three noticed that girls with better self-esteem were more able to avoid the traps that some of their peers fell into. They created the program to boost the confidence of girls by teaching them grooming habits. But they added other features to give girls tools to make good decisions for the rest of their lives, she said.
“It’s an educational opportunity of another kind,” Markley said.
That first year the organizers invited 20 Cleburne County girls ages 14 to 17 to attend, Markley said. Although they haven’t kept records on the success of the program, she said she has anecdotal evidence that it works.
“I had heard that at least eight of the first 20 finished college,” she said.
The program has developed over the years. Organizers decided to lower the ages of participation to 12 to 15 because that’s when the girls are most vulnerable, Markley said.
“Their bodies are changing; their hormones are changing,” she said.
Younger girls are also more open to the lessons the program teaches, Markley said.
The program, which costs an average of $160 per girl, is funded through local donations, Mathews said, the girls pay nothing. In addition, at least 35 volunteers are involved in planning, and more volunteers spend time during the week working with the girls, she said.
“I really like the ownership that the community has taken,” Markley said.
Girls are also excited about the program. This year 40 girls applied to participate and the Be Extreme board accepted 25, Mathews said.
“We notify the ones that we feel are most ready to make these changes in their lives,” Markley said.
Anna Berry, who is sponsoring breakfast for the girls on July 17, said she has been part of the program from the beginning. She likes it because it offers the girls a broad range of experiences they might not otherwise have, she said.
Participants meet other girls from all over the county, and meet adults in different careers they might not have considered or even heard about. It reaches the girls in their middle school years when the program can really make a difference in their lives, Berry said.
“That’s the time when they’re making a lot of decisions that could hurt them later on,” she said.
Paula Smith, co-owner of Heflin Taekwondo, will be a volunteer with the program for the first time this year.
“I’ve heard such great things about the program,” Smith said. “This was a way I could baby-step my way in.”
Smith will teach the girls basic self-defense, she said. It’s something she loves to do, because it builds confidence. It teaches them how to react in a situation, Smith said. If someone grabs their arm, they will know what to do, she said.
“If I can give them those tools, they can walk taller,” Smith said.
Kelly Hall, 15, said she gained confidence through the program, which she attended last year. She also learned to look at other people differently.
“It’s changed how I behave towards other people,” Hall said. “You have to talk to people instead of judging them by what’s on the outside.”