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Teen Leadership Academy changes lives

Date: 4/24/2015

HOLYOKE – A warm and inviting setting on the evening of April 6 in “The Living Room” at the Delaney House was a perfect backdrop for the completion of an inspiring pilot program – Teen Leadership Academy – that brought high school girls together with local women who served as coaches for 13 weeks.

Leah Uberseder, special projects and volunteer manager, and Brandy Wilson, director of middle and high school programs, both of Girls Inc. of Holyoke, were coordinators of the academy launch.

“I know this program is important because I’ve seen the power of bringing adult women together with teen girls to share lessons and provide support to be a transformative experience,” said Uberseder during an interview with Reminder Publications.

Uberseder noted that as a teen, one rarely has the chance to connect with adult women who are not family members or teachers, and especially not in a way that offers guidance and provides answers to questions that emerge as one nears high school graduation.

“As adults, we seek out professional mentorship and advice from colleagues with more experience, and I think that experience is even more valuable to show teens how to do the same,” said Uberseder.

Wilson echoed those sentiments.

“I truly believe that the young ladies who were recruited for this program enjoyed the experience,” said Wilson. “So many times young girls are afraid to connect with older women. I thought it would be great to connect girls from different backgrounds with professional women, and hear about their life experiences.”

Wilson added she was “amazed” to watch the girls blossom and begin to trust the coaches and look forward to talking with them during meetings.

“Our coaches really encouraged the girls to think about their future possibilities, and gave them the confidence to find their voice for the future,” said Wilson.

Both Wilson and Uberseder noted the students in the program were “strong” and only needed the extra support and push to figure out what’s next for them after high school.

The academy focused on a variety of topics during the 13 weeks, including conflict resolution, time management, pathways to college, visiting college campuses, outdoor adventure, money management, networking and personal brand, digital citizenship, building a resume and effective interviewing, exploring scholarship opportunities, professional dress and public speaking.

Uberseder noted that girls and their volunteer coaches built relationships that demonstrate the value of mentorship, networking and peer support among communities of women. Coaches followed the Girls Inc.’s research-based curriculum.

“We structured the sessions so that they are really an introduction to networking and to the world of women supporting each other across generations, in addition to a program that teaches real hard skills,” said Uberseder. “It is our hope that the teen participants now have a community of women they can call on as resources as they enter this exciting next phase of their lives.”

High school students participating in the first academy were Nysha Sanchez, KaSandra Velez, Makayla Guzman, Elisha Velez, Julia Mantilla, Angélica Cintrón, Denisha LaFountain and Natalie Nieves.

For Natalie Nieves, a junior at William J. Dean Technical High School, the academy was a perfect “motivating” experience.

“The advice the women gave us was really good,” said Nieves, noting the themes of staying in school and considering college were at the top of the list. “They also helped us with employment applications, and now I’m working at Six Flags this summer.”

Denisha LaFountain, also a junior at Dean Tech, said she especially enjoyed the sessions on public speaking, dressing professionally and applying for jobs.

“After meeting these strong leaders, they have inspired me to look at my potential,” said LaFountain. “Now when I think of college, I have no doubt I can do it.”

KaSandra Velez, a senior at Springfield High School of Science and Technology, participated in the academy along with her sister Elisha.

“All of the women were amazing,” Velez said. “I always had doubted myself but now after assertive training and learning to take a stand for what I believe in, I know now that I want to pursue a career in cosmetology.”

Coaches for the pilot academy program included Capitola Glica, Kay Althoff, Kim Beachell, Sara Cohen, Sara Allen, Sarah Schmidt, Yaraliz Soto, Camille Theriaque, Maria Pelcher and Anja Pauline Ebert.

It was evident talking with the coaches too that they grew from the experience.

As a single mom, Sarah Schmidt, director of the Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center at Holyoke Community College, also knew struggles early in her life and appreciated the women who helped her along the way.

“I struggled to find my place in life and many women helped me and I appreciated it,” she said. “To serve in this role with the academy and the girls was an honor.”

Schmidt added she hoped that the tour of the campus that the girls received would be “transforming.”

“I hope the tour will increase their confidence in themselves and show them this is an option and educational path they can choose to do,” she said.

Camille Theriaque, a retired lieutenant with the Holyoke Fire Department, and soon to be a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, said her experience with the girls was “positive in many ways.”

Theriaque’s major, psychology, was a perfect fit for her discussion with the girls on conflict resolution.

“Through role playing, we wanted the girls to see situations in a positive way and how to ensure your voice is heard,” said Theriaque.     “We encouraged girls to step back and think about all of the angles in a situation and to use their voice in appropriate and effective ways.”

Sara Cohen, assistant dean of admissions at Amherst College, also spoke fondly of the new academy approach at Girls Inc.

“I am very interested in access and equity for all persons,” said Cohen. “We stressed to the girls that some have a straight path to education while others take a windy path. We wanted girls to think about options and to see themselves on a campus.”

All coaches agreed that their experience with the girls was meaningful.

“It was an honor and a pleasure to spend time in a meaningful way with the girls,” added Cohen.

Girls Inc. will run two Teen Leadership Academy groups each school year, and is always seeking to partner with volunteer coaches, community invested companies, and high schools to build the next program, according to Uberseder.

The academy’s main sponsors for the program launch are PeoplesBank, and two MassMutual Employee Resources Groups, the Women’s Leadership Network and the Association of Latinas at MassMutual and Allies.

For more information on the program, contact Uberseder at  533-0796, ext. 108, or via email to