Support at My Sister’s Promise
Posted: February 23, 2013
The Winchester Star
Winchester — As the girls of My Sister’s Promise stood toe to toe in the middle of the gym, they realized something — they really aren’t that different.
Moments earlier, volunteer fitness coach Mike Doleman had the 16 teenage girls — with a wide range of size, shape and color — stand in a circle and take a step forward if they could answer “yes” to his questions.
“Has anyone in this group felt insecure?” he asked. “Has anyone had low self-esteem? Has anyone been bullied? Has anyone hated their body? Has anyone wished they could be more like HER?”
In less than a minute, all of the girls stood in the center, separated by inches of space.
Bullying, loneliness, pain, insecurity — all are issues experienced by the girls who came to My Sister’s Promise from very different paths, said Karee Radford-Weaver, one of the leaders of the new support group.
But what she and co-leader Barbie Atkins want the girls to realize is that they are not alone on that path any more.
“They have a sisterhood where they can hold onto each other and respect and be there for each other,” said Radford-Weaver, 37, a Frederick County resident.
Aimed at girls 13 and older, My Sister’s Promise is meant to empower them so they build self-confidence and self-esteem through physical and social activities, group meetings and the support of other girls going through the same things, she said.
The speed with which My Sister’s Promise has grown from a simple idea to something that has drawn interest from more than 40 girls has left the organizers reeling, Atkins said.
The group has held just a few events, but girls have attended from Millbrook, Sherando, James Wood and Handley High schools, Daniel Morgan Middle School and home-schooling environments.
Some have heard about the events through friends and others through Facebook, she said. This is not a faith-based group, so “any and every girl from all walks of life” may participate.
“This has gone so fast that we are just trying to keep up,” said Atkins, 36, also of Frederick County.
The group is not an organized nonprofit endeavor with a board of directors and plenty of community support. It is the work of two women who saw their daughters and other young girls in pain and said “enough is enough,” she said.
In a way, the group could be considered a New Year’s resolution, since that is when it started, Radford-Weaver said.
Mikala Horton, 17, her daughter, had decided not to attend a New Year’s Eve party because she knew it would include smoking and drinking. She went out with other friends instead, and then began to receive text messages from some of the boys at the party.
“They were asking me for naked pictures of myself,” Mikala said. “I didn’t want to do it, and they were being really nasty about it. They made me feel bad about myself.”
When she got home that night, she told her mother what had happened. After the teenager went to bed, a heartbroken Radford-Weaver called Atkins, a friend and fellow mother of a teen daughter, Alexis Thompson, 16.
Atkins understood her friend’s pain, having learned earlier in the year that her daughter had “posted a video online where she talked about committing suicide.”
The women initiated the idea of the group, named it My Sister’s Promise, and asked another friend, Vivian Walker of Winchester, to help start it. Walker does not have daughters, but she has brought her three nieces into the group.
They held the first meeting Jan. 11 in Radford-Weaver’s home, and 17 girls attended. At first, they just talked about the basics of who they are and where they’re from. But then the real issues started to appear — no relationship with their father, peer pressure, bullying, relationship problems, Atkins said.
Georgette Akpakli, 16, a junior at Millbrook, brought several issues with friendship and trust to the group.
When Georgette, the daughter of George and Frances Akpakli of Winchester. was younger, she was persecuted because of her skin tone. Then she felt several friends turned their backs on her. “Halfway through sophomore year, I started to shut everyone out, and I would go home crying,” she said.
Cambria Evans, 16, also a Millbook junior, also had a rough sophomore year, teased by boys about the way she spoke. “They thought they were being funny, but after a while, they crossed a line.”
Georgette agreed: “You can only hold back so many tears before you burst.”
The girls feel as though they have found trust and friendship within My Sister’s Promise. It has already made Georgette open up more, which she says “is a start.”
“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have this place to go,” she said.
The meetings will continue, because the girls need a comfortable, safe place to cry and speak openly sometimes, she said. But the mothers didn’t want to stop there.
When he heard about the group from Walker, Doleman, motivational fitness trainer with NXT Generation Sports and Fitness, offered to give the girls free boxing lessons once a month. He has them running around the gym, doing squats and jumping jacks, and learning punch combinations.
It is not only a physical outlet but also is meant to give them the confidence to know they can try anything, he said.
“I have two young daughters, so I know how hard it is to be a young girl in society now and be accepted,” he said.
A lot of teens endure situations they don’t feel they can discuss with their parents, said Catherine Adams, 16, of Frederick County, the daughter of R.L. and Freida Adams.
When rumors spread that Catherine had caused the suspension of another student, she dealt with months of harassment and teasing. At the time, “Mikala was the only person I could talk to.”
Now, the story is quite different. Having a group of girls who have just as many problems and also a sincere desire to connect with others makes her feel “they won’t judge you,” Catherine said.
“It opens your eyes that you are not the only person going through this,” she said. “I would have times when I would lock myself in my room and didn’t want to talk to anyone.”
Whatever is said in the events stays there, as do comments posted on the group’s private Facebook page.
Physical activities and emotional support are the two main goals now, but they are not the only ones, Atkins said. The leaders want to see the girls grow in confidence in every aspect of their lives.
At an event on Super Bowl Sunday, a smaller group of girls gathered to make desserts to be served on a night at the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter. A few days later, they were given a tour of that week’s operation and talked about the issue of homelessness.
Other activities will be added as the group attracts volunteers, such as Doleman, who offer their expertise, Atkins said. Some ideas have included art classes, job interview coaching, and camping outings.
They also plan to meet with nonprofit groups such as The Laurel Center and AIDS Response Effort to discuss issues including abuse, Internet dating, and “sexting.”
My Sister’s Promise has two Facebook pages. One is public and one is private. If a participant “likes” the public page, she will find a link to the private one, or can email the group at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Contact Laura McFarland at email@example.com