Girl power lessons a reality

A group of four girls from Marietta and Warren schools graduated this week from the first local Reality Cafe, a 12-week program designed to help young girls explore career options, build volunteer experience and learn valuable life tools, all with the goal of empowerment.

A special celebration was held Thursday evening at Marietta College’s Erwin Hall, where students were recognized for their accomplishments and could reflect on how they would take what they learned with them throughout school.

Tracey Huck, a third grade teacher at Warren Elementary, founded the program after serving as a prevention specialist for Children Services and recognizing a need to empower girls to think about their futures at a younger age.

The Reality Cafe concept was born from the Reality Store, a program that puts students in a financial simulation to choose careers and make decisions about finances and lifestyle choices.

“When I did that with my sixth graders a few years ago, many said they genuinely felt bad for their parents because they had to juggle all of that,” Huck said. “It was a reality check.”

Huck decided to pilot the Reality Cafe, which ties in the program with a series of other lessons and activities.

Though schools typically provide Ohio Career Information System to students, an Internet-based system to provide information about education and financial aid information, Huck wanted to get girls started earlier to empower them to make a plan for success.

“It’s a powerful program that we don’t usually expose them to until eighth grade,” she said. “But I wanted to really expose girls in particular to OCIS so they could get a jump start on it. It’s comprehensive and it follows you all the way to college.”

As a part of the Reality Cafe, students build a portfolio while also accumulating several volunteer experiences to give them an edge when applying to college and jobs.

“They are authentic experiences, rather than being a junior in high school and having to make something up to put on a resume or application,” Huck said.

The group spent time at the Gospel Mission Food Pantry and the Woman’s Home in Marietta.

“I really liked going to the food pantry, because we got to hand out toys and candy to kids on Christmas,” said Ava Lesher, 12, a student at Marietta Middle School. “It was a great experience.

In addition, Huck took students to different businesses where they might be interested in working to give them an idea of what it takes.

Girls were presented with a portfolio of their volunteer work, complete with sign-offs from supervisors, as well as results from their OCIS evaluations that Huck said she hopes they can keep with them for life.

The program even included self-defense courses, taught by Cat Bigley at Everyday Warrior Academy in Marietta.

“That was my favorite part,” said Emmy Stormes, 12, a Warren Elementary student. “It taught us how to protect ourselves but it was also really fun.”

Self-defense classes went just two days, but all four girls who took part said they were confident that they would have a good idea of what to do if they were attacked.

“It’s about awareness of what’s going on around you,” Huck said.

Huck said Reality Cafe will be offered every fall to sixth grade students from all schools, with tuition set at about $360 plus a $25 supply fee for the 12 weekly, 90-minute sessions.

All four girls said they would highly recommend the program to girls nearing sixth grade.

“My sister already wants to do it, and she’s only in fourth grade,” Stormes said. “But every time I get home she asks me what I did and gets excited.”

Reality Cafe was sparked by the Fountain Foundation, a nonprofit in Marietta dedicated to improving the lives or area children. A 5K held in fall 2013 by the group helped raise money to provide scholarships for several students to complete the program.

“It was a bunch of women who believe in girls that really made this happen,” Huck said.

Reality Cafe uses Marietta College as a home base to give students a chance to experience a college campus, and Huck notes that scholarships are available for students who want to enroll.

“It’s counseling, camp and pre-college all in one little package,” she said. “And it’s all about the concept of girl power.”