By Doug Stutsman The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.
Moments after completing an assignment, Karissa Samuels raised her hand towards SMART Girls program coordinator Jameka Gardner.
Karissa's answers were meant to remain confidential. But the 11-year-old wanted to share.
"I am a daughter and a friend," the Thomson-McDuffie Middle School student read aloud to 10 peers. "I am adorable. I am a fan of me. I am a Christian. I am fun -- until you push my buttons. I am beautiful no matter what you think. I am my biggest cheerleader. I am Karissa Mechele Samuels."
One by one, the other girls did the same -- reading eight individual attributes that make them feel unique.
"This room is our diary," Gardner said at the Thomson Boys & Girls Club. "I want these girls to feel comfortable discussing anything."
Although SMART Girls has been a Boys & Girls Club program for years, the 2014 version is more results-oriented, grounded in research by health, wellness and education professionals.
The latest model caters to various learning styles and supports self-directed learning by extension activities that encourages girls to apply and expand their knowledge beyond the SMART Girls classroom, according to a statement from the Boys & Girls Club.
Only 10 clubs across the country were chosen to pilot the 2014 program.
"We're so honored to be one of 10 clubs selected," said Augusta teen programming coordinator Stephani Shepherd. "Even though it's only been (two) weeks since SMART Girls started, it's already been met with very positive feedback. Just seeing how much it means to these girls is inspiring."
Each SMART Girls program has three age divisions: 8 to 10, 11 to 13 and 14 to 18.
The oldest SMART Girls group highlights advanced issues, such as sex education, influence of social media, healthy relationships and the importance of a balanced diet.
The youngest group is designed to teach reasoning skills, including how to solve arguments without using violence, while also emphasizing hands-on activities such as arts and crafts.
The middle group, which Gardner coordinates, helps develop identities, build self-esteem and talk about body changes.
"SMART Girls provides club girls opportunities to develop leadership skills, confidence and independence," said Boys & Girls Club senior Vice President Damon Williams. "In addition to physical wellness, it is important for young women to establish healthy interpersonal relationships."
The groups are required to have at least 10 members, but no more than 15, which Williams says "helps facilitate more meaningful interactions between the group leader and participants, as well as between the participants themselves."
According to a club statement, four outcomes should be detected throughout the 10-week program.
--An increase in self-esteem and confidence in appearance, comportment and relationships.
--More effective communication skills.
--Education on how to date responsibly, while also building strong friendships and appreciation of family.
--Support fellow girls in building self-confidence and engaging in healthy relationships.
"Club staffers of SMART Girls are used to emphasize and reinforce virtues on an ongoing basis," Williams said. "It provides the benefit of rich experiential activities designed to build girls and young women of strong character, healthy self-concept and great potential."
Nearly 90,000 girls nationwide have been involved in SMART Girls, including 34 locally.