Albany native Haley Kilpatrick Dozier tells the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County a little bit about the national non-profit organization she founded, called Girl Talk, which helps young girls who are victims of bullying. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)
ALBANY — The Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County got an expert’s view of bullying when Girl Talk founder Haley Kilpatrick Dozier recalled her personal experiences at the hands of bullies and how it led her to start the non-profit support group at the age of 15.
Kilpatrick-Dozier shared how what began as a simple, peer-to-peer mentoring program at her high school has grown into a national non-profit which has chapters in 43 states and 6 countries and has helped more than 40,000 young people improve their self-esteem, gain leadership skills and get involved in community service, despite difficulties they experienced during their middle school years.
Kilpatrick-Dozier pointed out three areas that most affect middle school girls: bullying of different forms, pressure from others and themselves to live up to certain ideals and a wave of biological and emotional changes that bring fear and uncertainty.
Girl Talk attempts to address those issues from the point of view of the middle school girls and offer young girls and their loved ones ways of coping by providing them with mentors, encouraging them to get involved in outside activities like clubs, sports or the arts and getting them involved in community service.
By working with the young girls, Girl Talk hopes to curb instances where bullied young people resort to violence in the form of suicide or attacking others.
“We’re seeing more and more young people taking their own lives, going to extreme measures,” Kilpatrick-Dozier said. “We’re seeing more and more kids who aren’t classified as mentally ill going to school with weapons wanting to harm other students.”
Kilpatrick-Dozier said the biggest issue facing middle school age kids is bullying, which she said, comes in different forms, from physical bullying, to what is now called cyber-bullying or digital drama.
Kilpatrick-Dozier said she bullied while a student at Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany.
Kilpatrick-Dozier shared that after leaving elementary school and starting at Deerfield, she immediately felt pressure from other students to look and act a certain way, something that led to anxiety, low self esteem and a decline in her performance at school.
“I started in sixth grade and didn’t have all the right things and didn’t really fit in,” she said. “There was kind of an unspoken uniform: North Face fleece, thermal tee, jeans, Timberland boots, don’t forget the LL Bean book bag with your initials on the back, in white. It was overwhelming because we couldn’t afford all of these things. In six months of being in school there, not only was my nickname Crisco, I went from being a straight A student to making my first C. I couldn’t focus in the classroom because of all the social drama going on, notes being passed, girls picking me apart from head to toe and it was exhausting.”
Kilpatrick-Dozier said that it wasn’t until she got into high school and started talking with other girls that she realized she wasn’t alone in feeling like her middle school years had been difficult. It was out of those conversations, coupled with the fact that her younger sister was about to enter middle school, that led Kilpatrick-Dozier to start Girl Talk.
“When I got to high school it was kind of like of like this nonchalant conversation, ‘oh yeah, middle school was terrible. You weren’t invited to Julia’s birthday party? Neither was I,’” Kilpatrick-Dozier said. “If I’d only known that at the time, I wouldn’t have thought I was the only one. I wished more people were talking about it so the start of my tenth grade year was the start of my sister’s middle school experience so we decided to start Girl Talk.”
What began as something small, four or five high school girls mentoring middle school kids at one school, quickly grew in proportion as the middle school girls who were mentored reached high school and wanted to mentor girls themselves.
“I think the neatest kind of unintended result of starting Girl Talk was learning that if middle school girls are mentored by their slightly older peers that they want to become like them,” she said. “You have just as many high school girls that are a part of it as middle school girls because your eighth graders go to high school and they decide, ‘I want to be a Girl Talk leader too.’”
In fact, Kilpatrick-Dozier feels that the things the girls learn who are helped in middle school by Girl Talk are actually solidified when the girls become mentors in high school.
“These girls learn through teaching,” she said. “They learn it in middle school, but it’s actually solidified through ninth to twelfth grade when they’re actually teaching the material and being a mentor and being that role model middle school girls can look up to.”
Serving as mentors also serves as community service, something Girl Talk mentors stress as a means of dealing with bullying. Being involved in community service is a way for young girls to get involved in something bigger than themselves, while also learning about the needs of their communities.
“Community service, I would say, it’s the most important for a young girl to be involved in,” she said. “It’s the most transformative. The seeds will be planted so that they will grow up to be kind, confident women who treat each other with respect and are aware of the needs of their community; that they are servant leaders and that they give back.”
Throughout her presentation, Kilpatrick-Dozier continued to stress the importance of service and her desire to see more and more people get involved in their communities and in Girl Talk.
“My goal is to inspire you, for you to feel informed about what girls are going through,” she said. “I want you to feel empowered, and if you know a middle school girl, or someone who does, you can inform them about Girl Talk and let them know that it’s available to them. It’s available at no cost. So, I’ll make sure you’re equipped to make a difference in your community.”
For more information, see the Girl Talk website at mygirltalk.org.