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Shine On! Conference Turns Spotlight on Girls' Confidence and Resiliency

Morgan Polhemus is savvy enough to know the models found in women’s magazines aren’t everything they appear to be.

The models use a lot of makeup and are digitally made to look a certain way.

The 10-year-old Momot Elementary School fifth grader gained that insight last weekend at the Shine On! Conference, an overnight event held at the CVPH Wellness Center in Plattsburgh for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade girls.

In one workshop, the girls looked at magazines and found pictures that portray unrealistic images of women in advertising. The girls would then rip the pages from the magazine and throw them out in a symbolic gesture of refusing to accept the message.

“We learned that beauty isn’t just on the outside,” Polhemus said. “We learned that we shouldn’t pay attention to endorsements that say you’ll look better if you do this or buy that, or you’ll be more popular if you do something in a certain way.”

The conference evolved from an extra-credit practicum created for public relations majors last year by Assistant Professor Colleen Lemza to a credit-bearing, two-semester event-planning class. It received funding through a grant from the CVPH Foundation in association with the Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York.

“Last year, it was a four-hour workshop held on a Saturday. We had no money; we worked on a shoestring budget,” Lemza said. Ninety girls signed up. “This year, we went to Dean Kathy Lavoie, who gave us permission to do it as a credit-bearing course.”

“This year, we had more than 180 girls attend,” she said. Lemza had to turn away an additional 92 girls. “Obviously, it’s striking a chord. The whole point of the conference is to try to develop resiliency in young girls. Everything out there — in the media, among their peers, in social media — says they can’t do this or they can’t do that. It’s all about looks; it’s all about being pretty or popular — being the fastest, being the best. As a result, we watch girls go from rambunctious 5- and 6-year-olds to girls who question their appearance and ask if their rears look big at age 8.”

Chyresse Wells, a senior PR major from Ballston Spa, N.Y., helped with the inaugural program and was back for a second time

“I loved the course — the whole idea behind it. I enjoyed the event-planning aspect as a class, but I especially loved the objective. Girls at this age are so impressionable. This is a great opportunity for us to give them positive role models to look up to before they head to middle school,” Wells said.

Upon registration, the girls were divided into groups with the intent that they wouldn’t know one another.

“They were forced to interact with new people and make new friends,” Lemza said. “The whole point was for them to overcome their resistance to being separated from their friends — that they could persevere and become resilient. We had a few tears, but that didn’t last very long.”

At regular intervals, the groups of girls would rotate to different areas such as the magazine station, a T-shirt station where they had to ask others to sign their shirts and a media presentation on body image and self-esteem.

As part of the event-planning coursework, the college students had to work out the logistics of feeding and housing more than 180 girls, moving them from station to station and giving each group time in the Wellness Center pool.

“I was worried about the rotation of workshops and how that would all work out, but everything came together beautifully,” said Kristie Casler, a senior PR major from Saranac Lake, N.Y. “People don’t understand the logistics of planning an event. This has helped me understand all the details. If one thing goes wrong, it can set off everything. I’m a detail-oriented person, and this has truly encouraged me to go into event planning.”

“That’s what struck a chord with me,” said Dani Johnson, a sophomore PR major from Malone, N.Y. “Doing all the details and seeing them all come together gives you such a satisfying feeling. All the hard work and stress of the past year was worth it, seeing how the girls love the experience.”

“The smiles on their faces tell you they’re having such a good time,” Casler said.

A parental component on the second day brought in 41 mothers and guardians and included workshops on how to talk to daughters about body image, how to provide healthy meals for families on the go, and how to address bullying — whether the daughters were victims or perpetrators.

Another aspect of the Shine On! Conference that Lemza appreciated is how it has crossed college departmental lines. More than 40 SUNY Plattsburgh students majoring in counseling and teacher education signed on as volunteer counselors for the groups of girls.

“The counselors are all here because they love kids,” Lemza said. “It’s good experience, and it’s great community service, but truth be told, they’re here because they want to be around the girls.”

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