Deborah Mathews leans over 14-year-old Hailey Miller’s shoulder to adjust her fork at Classic on Noble. Around them, 23 other girls wearing matching red T-shirts adjust black cloth napkins in their laps, sip from heavy crystal glasses and talk quietly with one another. A dish slips, clinking loudly and causing the table of girls to erupt in nervous giggles.
“They’re going to be practicing table manners,” explained Mathews, the director of Be Extreme, Inside and Out.
The annual weeklong girls’ program is open to all 12- to 15-year-old female students in the Cleburne County School System. During the week, the teens learn interview skills, dining etiquette, hair and makeup tips and fitness techniques. The group also goes on a shopping spree at Dillard’s, one of the week’s most popular events. Before the shopping trip, Jacksonville State University professor of fashion merchandising Robbie Boggs met with each of the girls to talk about body sizes and styles.
“She did the most wonderful thing,” Mathews said. “She went and analyzed all of their measurements to find out what basic shape they were.”
Eight local salons also donated their time and services to the program. With their parents’ permission, participants finished the week with new hairstyles — cuts and color.
Mathews said Prestige Medical Spa has also been a major donor to the program, hosting three seminars on skin and nail health for the girls.
At the end of the week, the participants walked the runway at a fashion show in front of family and friends. After the show, the girls practiced the conversation skills they learned during the week at a formal reception.
“The externals are the hook that gets them interested in the program,” Mathews said, but Be Extreme also focuses on inside beauty.
The program began in 2004 as a way to mentor at-risk teens and encourage community involvement.
“Quite frankly, we were addressing the dropout rate,” Mathews said, adding cutting class was another issue the program sought to decrease. “We’ve got a 90 percent graduation rate for the girls that have been through this program. We are following this group.”
The program also addresses some of the internal problems young girls struggle with, like self-confidence, school attendance and participation and parent involvement. Be Extreme also spends a day focusing on reducing relational aggression, known as “Girl Wars.”
Be Extreme is funded primarily by donations from Cleburne County businesses and organizations, like grocery stores and churches.
“We are locally funded through businesses and donors,” Mathews said.
To participate, girls had to fill out an application and parent permission form. Participants were then selected for interviews, and 24 were invited to join the program.
New friends 13-year-old Beth Lewis and 14-year-old Kelly Hall of Heflin agreed it’s been easy to make friends in the program, and Lewis said spending time with Hall has been one of her favorite parts of the program — along with facials and the shopping trip.
For 15-year-old Hailey Garner of Ranburne, learning new things has been a fun challenge.
“I’ve learned that it is very important to be a lady, even if I’m not always,” she said.
But after a morning spent practicing polite dinner conversation and learning to distinguish between salad, dinner and dessert forks, there is one thing the girls just can’t resist — the huge slice of strawberry cheesecake in front of each place setting.
“If I’m not going to be able to eat this cheesecake soon,” Lewis said, “it’s going to eat me.”