Usually when you hear the words "risk taking" and "teens" in the same sentence, you think of boys.
However, Huron County girls ages 12 to 18 may be out-misbehaving the boys, according to the results of the 2007 Huron County Health Assessment Report.
The data collected showed girls were taking more risks when it comes to smoking, using alcohol and drugs, and sexual activity. Young women were also twice as likely to have contemplated suicide in the past 12 months and admitted more often to abusing medications.
One Huron County General Health District program is working to combat that.
Circle of Friends is a mentoring program for girls ages 11 to 18, a critical time to influence health behaviors, program coordinator Theresa Graybill said.
"Young women today face many difficult choices and challenges, as well as many new opportunities. At Circle of Friends, our goal is to guide the girls in making healthy choices," Graybill said.
Circle of Friends, developed in 1998 by health department staff, is an on-site group mentoring program with meeting locations in Norwalk and Willard.
A group of adult women mentors and adolescent girls get together for two hours every other Thursday. At each meeting, a topic relevant to the young women is selected ahead of time, examined within an activity or skit and then discussed during the core of the program, called the circle discussion.
The programming for each encounter is designed primarily for 11-14 year olds, while a sub-program called the Mentor-In-Training (MIT) program serves high school girls. The high school members take on more responsibility, serve as peer mentors, lead some activities and have their own separate discussions.
"My favorite part of Circle of Friends would have to be the discussions," said one MIT freshman from Willard. "I always learn something new and it's great to hear the many different stories and sides to everything. ... People don't judge you on what you say, and that's the great thing about this program."
Meeting topics have run the gamut including: Nutrition and exercise, eating disorders, self-image, beauty, attitude, put-downs, manners and etiquette, trust, team building, fear, respect, feelings, anger, stress, boys, dating, relationships, puberty and reproduction, abstinence, teen pregnancy, STIs, resistance skills, sexual abuse and assault, drug and alcohol use, suicide, death, goals, careers, money management, school success, college/post-secondary training, media, friendship, change, family, parents, giving, communication, popularity, personal safety, discrimination, fighting and bullying.
Graybill said Circle of Friends is unlike many other mentoring programs because it is not one-on-one mentoring.
"For many mentors the group atmosphere is less intimidating. The coordinators plan everything. The mentors show up and participate, listen, guide, support, care and have fun," she said.
In addition, the mentor to mentee ratio is maintained at 2:6 to ensure that the mentors never feel overwhelmed. To date, Circle of Friends has had 139 women from all different age groups and backgrounds participate as mentors.
Patti Wilde has been a mentor at the Norwalk Circle of Friends for 9 years and joined to help her empty nest feeling when her oldest daughter graduated from high school. She said she found a program "where empathetic and caring leaders have made a special place for these girls to come and learn, be silly, cry and feel loved."
Wilde also said she was surprised to find how much she has received from the program.
"The gifts of a smile, a hug, even a rolling of the eyes, show me how important this program has become. A true testament to this program is the number of girls that have been through the program and are coming back to mentor," she said.
One of those Circle of Friends girls-turned mentor is Ashley Seville. Program rules say the girls must take a mandatory one year off from the program after they graduate from high school before they can sign up to be a mentor.
Seville, currently a senior in college, participated in the program from the seventh to 12th grades. She said she returned as a mentor because "I wanted to impact someone else's life as much as mine has been impacted by the program."
In the 10 years the program has been meeting, over 480 girls have participated in the program at both the Norwalk and Willard sites.
Originally federal and local grants were used to fund the entire program. As cuts came down from the federal government, the majority of its funding disappeared. Currently, the program is supported locally by a grant from the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services and from an anonymous donor.
"In September, we thought we were going to have to cancel the meetings for the year because there wasn't enough money," Graybill said. "I am so thankful for Job and Family Services and the donor for seeing the value of the program and not wanting lose this asset to our Huron County youth."
In response to the funding cuts, some of the activities and outings have been cut as well as the total number of meetings.
Circle of Friends strives to show the girls opportunities and experiences they would have never thought possible for themselves and to motivate, inspire and promote education and achievement.
The members have seen a performance of "The Nutcracker" in Mansfield. One girl was very excited to be going because this was her first attendance at a stage performance and it was the first time she had ever traveled outside of Huron County.
The biggest change in response to the funding cuts has come to the high school portion of the program with the elimination of two annual college visits and scaling back of Book Club and the MIT Rites of Passage Program. The MIT programs were used to not only prepare the high school girls for the ACT and SAT, but to also teach them study, job and personal management skills to become successful, healthy, contributing adult members of society someday.
Flower sale, fundraiser
To help raise money for the Mentor-In-Training Rites of Passage program, a spring flower sale and fundraiser will be held this month. The fundraiser includes a large assortment of flats of annuals, pots of flowers and hanging baskets. Flowers come in the day before Mother's Day.
To place a flower order while supporting Circle of Friends, contact any member or the Huron County General Health District, Health Education and Preparedness Division, 180 Milan Ave., Norwalk, Ohio 44857 or by telephone at (419) 668-1652, ext. 258.
Becoming a mentor
Currently there are two sites for the Circle of Friends in Huron County Willard and Norwalk. Each group meets separately twice a month on Thursday's from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Circle of Friends is especially in need of mentors at its Willard location. To sign up to become a mentor or to refer a girl to the program, contact program coordinator Theresa Graybill at (419)668-1652, ext. 234.