Girl Talk founder and Albany native Haley Kilpatrick Dozier reflects on the decade that has passed since the organization was first established. (Albany Herald file photo)
ALBANY — In 2002, as a high school sophomore at Deerfield-Windsor School, Haley Kilpatrick Dozier started something with the idea that young girls would have a positive role model to guide them through the obstacles of adolescence.
At the time, there was no way to know how big the idea of Girl Talk would become.
“The goal was simple, for middle school girls to understand that they were not alone,” she said. “I remember looking up to people older than me, and I thought (that connection was important).
“I thought just a few girls would show up (at the first meeting). I never dreamed (it would get such a big response).”
At the time, Dozier had a younger sister who was about to start middle school. After encountering the “mean girl” culture herself, she didn’t want her sibling to go through it — spurring the idea for Girl Talk, an international non-profit peer-to-peer mentoring program with the premise of high school girls mentoring middle school girls to help them deal with the issues they face during their formative early teenage years. Its mission is to help young teenaged girls build self-esteem, develop leadership skills and recognize the value of community service.
Since 2002, the organization has served more than 40,000 girls in 43 states and seven countries.
Through weekly chapter meetings facilitated by high school Girl Talk leaders, the program helps middle schools learn from their peer mentors and better understand and address the issues they face. In doing so, the idea is for girls to develop confidence, leadership skills and compassion.
The leaders have the opportunity to share their experiences as positive role models, and middle school girls have the chance to learn they are not alone in the issues they face and that understanding, kindness and compassion can be the foundation for better relationships with others.
In the initial meeting with W.T. Henry, then the headmaster at Deerfield, Dozier had with her a poster board while he took notes and asked questions. From her account of that meeting, he asked there be an adviser present and that the program did not turn into an opportunity to establish a gossip mill. Henry gave his blessing, and the two agreed to touch base at the end of the semester.
THE GREEN LIGHT
Dozier’s mother was outside of the office, making her the first to hear the news.
“It speaks volumes about the community at large, that the headmaster was supportive of a 15-year-old,” the Girl Talk founder recalled. “I felt confident. I had the green light, I just had to (determine the structure) and get the word out.”
An adviser was selected, and the first meeting was held in her classroom. With more than 80 percent of the middle school girls attending the meeting, the group had to be moved to Deerfield’s library.
After the ice breaker, the atmosphere at that first meeting was interesting.
“We went through the spectrum of emotion and, at the end, the girls were crying and excited to come back,” Dozier recalled. “Parents came to me about it. It was neat to see the ripple effect beyond the first meeting.”
By design, the program does combat bullying — but that is only a small part of it. To help it fulfill its mission, there are several nonprofits Girl Talk works with, including Girls Inc. and Boys and Girls Club.
“It goes well beyond bullying, but that is one of the issues we address,” Dozier said. “It is a leadership program for girls. We go one step further and target all girls. All girls are at risk …
“The collaborative component is the one I’m most proud of. I’m always asked: ‘Who is Girl Talk’s big competition?’ I don’t see it as competition. … I think of it as a more supplemental program for girls. I’m really eager to see all of those efforts expand.”
Aside from watching her program thrive the way it has, there is another benefit Dozier has experienced.
“An unintended result was that it started a healing process for me as well,” she said. “As the oldest sibling, I wish I had someone to fall back on. It would have gone a long way.
“I believe at the time, at the first meeting up until today, the positive peer relationship has a direct relationship with academic performance. I went from being a straight-A student to getting my first C. If I had a peer mentor program in place, I could have felt more academically stable as well.”
A DIFFERENCE MAKER
In the two years Dozier remained at Deerfield, she noticed a big difference — and not just in the girls who had been given the chance to demonstrate their leadership skills.
“I definitely witnessed an incredible shift, and really, the credit goes to the high school leaders,” Dozier said. “It wasn’t only noticeable in the hallways, but it trickled down to staff, siblings, parents and boyfriends …
“By the time I was a senior, there were five other programs in Southwest Georgia. … There was just such a need. Eleven years ago, we didn’t talk about the effects of bullying. I didn’t know it was called bullying; I just knew girls were mean and I had no idea it was outside my school.”
Anniversary festivities were conducted in November in Atlanta, and were attended by key stakeholders in the program. For as much as she is shocked and humbled over the program’s progress, Dozier said she hopes it will continue — and even outlive her.
“My goal is to look back, and over the next 20 years to reach a million girls,” she said. ”Not just to make middle school easier, but look at the holistic approach to girls (that they will have the opportunity) to be leaders.”
She hopes to to influence a generation of girls to kindness that translates into the workplace.
“If they become mothers,” she said, “they will raise good daughters.”
This summer, the organization is taking its summer camp, Project Inside Out, to six locations — including the Deerfield-Windsor School Lower Campus in Albany from June 23-27. Plans to do a summit in Washington, D.C., are also in the works.
Debbie Lentz, now the Girl Talk adviser at Deerfield, remembers how the beginnings of Girl Talk got started even before Dozier pitched the idea.
“I worked in the media center and Haley was in middle school,” she recalled. “She would always pay me a visit, distraught about what was happening in middle school.”
Even though she recently became the adviser at Deerfield, Lentz has been involved from the beginning. She also sits on the board of directors for the organization.
“It’s an awesome program to have in the school and build with younger girls with Deerfield,” she said. “In the 10th year, we reached 40,000 girls.
“(Since I’ve been involved I’ve been) watching them grow from scared caterpillars. It’s an opportunity to be in a circle with a high school leader (and share) concerns over the school year and grow into great butterflies. It gives girls a chance to learn what their strengths are and learn what their weaknesses are.”
The group began by having morning meetings before school. Newsletters and flyers were sent out.
“It’s been a huge success ever since,” Lentz said. “(The atmosphere there at first was one of) excitement. (The girls were) eager to see what they would be learning about.
” … (The atmosphere now) is similar to what it was 10 years ago.”
Being involved with Girl Talk on a higher level, Lentz has been able to see the impact outside of Southwest Georgia — such as with Project Inside Out.
“There was this eighth-grade girl who did not want to be there,” she recalled from one year. “She had a big build and dark hair, and she had a backpack with a blue pony on it she had with her 24/7. We promised her mom she would see a huge difference.”
In that particular case, the girl did not want to participate. By the last day, she was not wearing the backpack, allowing Lentz to put it on for the mother to see when she came to pick her daughter up.
“She (her mother) saw it and started crying,” Lentz said. “(The situation) was totally different from what it was on Monday. The children like that (from whom) you see change in such a short period of time … It’s just amazing.”
Meanwhile, the program has begun to reach out to girls even before middle school by the establishment of Girl Talk Jr. at Deerfield’s lower campus, which consists of fourth- and fifth-grade girls who meet once a month.
As the high school girls mentor the middle school girls, there are also weekly leader meetings during which the head leader for that month chooses the lesson, which can include topics such as communicating with parents, friendships and cyberbullying. Girls participate in the lesson, and possibly have a skit afterwards.
“Depending on what the girls have asked to discuss, they may pull something from there,” Lentz said.
The meetings take place on Wednesdays after school. In Deerfield’s program, including those at the lower campus, there are roughly 50-60 girls involved in Girl Talk, Lentz said.
The ultimate goal is to get the program in all 50 states. Meanwhile, the hope is it will continue to grow in Southwest Georgia.
“The addition of Girl Talk Jr. is a huge success, and we plan to continue to do that,” Lentz said. “Our next hope is to get it into other areas and surrounding counties and make it bigger and better.”
The growth beyond Deerfield as been seen even in Albany, with a Girl Talk chapter at Byne Christian School. Lisa Carr, volunteering as Byne’s Girl Talk adviser, is currently in her first year with the group.
“I do not have a daughter. Since my son (now 14) was in K-4, I’ve been really involved in the school and was asked to be a sponsor,” she said. “I had a four-hour meeting with Debbie Lentz, and I found out how involved it was.
“It was very enlightening. I didn’t realize teen girls have been this mean.”
The meetings at Byne start off with a snack, followed by fellowship, lesson and a prayer. There are some days, Carr said, where they just sit and talk. The group, consisting of about a dozen girls, also do Thanksgiving dinners, deliver gifts to teachers, among other things.
“Sometimes it is silly,” said Carr of the mood at the meetings. “(We discuss) what is going on in school, what is happening in chapel. They sometimes don’t appreciate what teachers do for them.”
Carr, not having a daughter herself, said she has learned something from seeing the girls flourish — and more about what girls today experience.
“They are exposed to a lot more. They are not really meaner (than when I was growing up),” she said. “We bring up current events, such as cyberbullying. They are exposed to so much more, and I’m 42.
“(Bullies) could blast stuff on the Internet. We tell them to stay away from those girls, and turn the other cheek.”
Since then, the girls have opened up to Carr.
“They didn’t know what to think of me,” she said. “I encourage them to talk. I tell them: ‘I’m not a counselor, but I will do the best I can for you.’”
In her time with Girl Talk, Carr said she has noticed big changes in the group — particularly in the younger participants.
“With the sixth grade, we couldn’t get anything done,” she said. “They were giggling, and not interacting with others outside of their clique. There has been a change in that. I told them at the beginning — this is like a sport. … This is a commitment. (A coach would expect them to) be there for practice. We expect the same out of them.”
Carr is like her counterparts in that she hopes, that as the program gets out there, the girls involved will become more confident.
“I just want to grow their self-esteem and grow their confidence,” she said. “I’m in awe when I see that with these girls.
“I think (the program) is great. I’m blessed to be given the opportunity (to be a part of it). It wasn’t what I expected. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
‘BELIEVED IN HER’
More than a decade later, Henry is still able to recall the first meeting with Dozier.
“She asked me what I thought about the proposal,” the former headmaster said. “She said it was about girls doing the talking, (and for) girls who had been in perils of a middle school environment.
”I said ‘That’s fine, but come back to me with with a written proposal.’ A week later, she came back with a proposal, and it satisfied me.”
While agreeing that any program like this helps, there another reason Henry said he chose to back it.
“The main reason I approved it was because I believed in her,” he said. “She was cut out of a different mold. She was more mature; she didn’t go through the ‘silly’ phase. I was like having another female adult on campus. She wasn’t worried about being popular. She was more concerned about doing what was right.
“Her main motivator was that she didn’t want her sister to go through what she went through.”
His wife, Ruth, was a teacher at Deerfield at the time, and she was able to see the impact of a trend she once related to herself.
“Girls are mean. Boys push and shove,” she said. “It was like that when I was in school, and going through it now (in the social media age) has made it worse … I thought middle school would last forever. The ones who had the worst experience were the ones who thought they were going through it alone. A high percentage of middle school girls think they are ugly, they all think they are fat and they all think their mom is the meanest.
“The Girl Talk leaders are those who were looked up to. All of a sudden (the middle school girls) realized they are not alone. I think the whole purpose is to let them know they are not alone, and that (it doesn’t last forever).”
Ruth Henry was the second person to sponsor the program after Sharon Presley. In her time there, Henry said she recalled a box the girls could drop their talking points into, outside speakers being brought in, activities in sharing and community service.
In her experiences with her, she described the program’s founder as someone who “had all the time in the world for everybody.”
“It was real interesting to watch,” she said. “I was the sponsor Haley’s senior year, and when she left, she basically had a curriculum written out in no time. She wasn’t afraid to ask for help. She was bold in a positive way, and if she needed help, she would find someone to help her.
”As she grew the program and realized she need to go to the next level, there was always someone to help her make (the next step). She was very nurturing.”
Girl Talk eventually earned a reputation strong enough for teachers, administrators and parents alike to ask to have their children exposed to it.
“She had a network of people who were willing to help her,” W.T. Henry said.
Even before Dozier left, the difference seen at Deerfield’s campus was significant.
“We were seeing results at the school locally,” Ruth Henry said. “I wasn’t even looking at it past Deerfield. She organized Girl Talk while in college; she operated Girl Talk out of her dorm room. It blows your mind to think about what she did with no budget.
“(It is) a concept that was a good idea, organized very well and came from a passion to do something good … From what I saw, it had an impact on those who struggled in the past. If they didn’t participate in anything else other than Girl Talk, it gave them an identity.”
While Dozier was there, the group was given a room — which they painted and decorated.
“I’d go by the room and there would be 40-60 kids in there,” W.T. Henry said. “It was a positive thing to have at the end of the school day. I saw right quick that the program was going to fly.”
The presence of such a program, the former headmaster said, made his job easier.
“It was overwhelming to me,” he said. “I was the one who heard complaints from parents, and that came less and less. The kids we were worried about had friends in the hallway.”
His wife, as a teacher, noticed that also — not just because there was more compassion in the hallways, but also because it provided a training ground to turn any girl into a leader.
“The girls who struggled, they blossomed and gave back by being leaders,” she said. “When they started off, they were too timid and shy. They developed such confidence and I think that was rewarding. What was also very rewarding was the that queen bees (transitioned) to realize they were no better than anyone else.
“To watch those girls let go of some of that ego … it balances out, because there is a tendency to think a program like this will help those who (are struggling), but it also reaches out to bullies. All of a sudden, they became real leaders instead of bullies. Those wings have to be clipped off, (and that’s when it becomes evident) they are not the right wings.”
Considering what they saw as the program was developing and what it is become now, it is hard for the Henrys to see Girl Talk going away.
“One of the reasons (it has been successful) is because of her (Dozier’s) network,” Ruth Henry said. “It will be really interesting to watch (over the) next 10 years because a lot of those big money, powerful people … they are looking for (programs with) a wholesome purpose. That’s what I think of when I think of this.
“It’s just the kind of thing I can’t imagine would go away.”