Caring for Girls’ Inaugural Seminar

Caring for Girls

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Caring for Girls Academy, Inc. held its first ever seminar last month in an effort to not only get their name out in the community, but to help young girls and boys get talking about one of the most serious issues that plagues them daily – sex.

The taboo topic was unleashed to a roomful of boys and girls of varying ages. Not to mention some adults in the room as well.

“The topic here is date rape,” said Hyacinth Dyer, a teacher at the Lew Williams Head Start program, “so it might get a little uncomfortable in here.”

But even with the heavy topic, speakers were able to keep the atmosphere light. All in an effort to get the kids talking. Before diving into the date rape topic, one exercise they played consisted of taking M &M’s and answering questions on their sexual experiences based on the colors in their hands.

Program participants were encouraged to write their answers down and were asked such questions as what age they were when they had their first boy/girlfriend, first kiss or first discussion with their parents about sex. Some never had a deep discussion beyond “don’t have a baby,” while others had the talk after they were already sexually involved.

One adult in the room was quite candid in her response when it came to her mother’s heart-to-heart.

“She told me it’s going to hurt,” she said divulging that the talk came when she entered middle school because a lot of her friends were getting pregnant. But her mom’s tactic to scare her daughter into abstaining from sex backfired.

“Just being around my peers and hearing the other opinions, I wish she would have told me the truth because maybe I would have waited a little longer.”

Although shy at first, most of the other teens began to open up, although the red M&M’s, which meant you had to disclose how old you were when you had your first sexual experience, seemed to be disappearing at an alarming rate.

Those who did answer that one cited their first experience, which Dyer emphasized could be touching and not necessarily intercourse, happening as young as 12, the majority getting involved in sexual situations before even graduating middle school.

When it came time to reflect on their sexual experiences almost every teen and adult in the room said if they had it to do all over again, they would wait longer before getting involved with the opposite sex. But others took their experiences as blessings, a way to learn from their past mistakes and to change their futures.

“I’m going to start talking to my son pretty early,” said one adult who hopes to have open communication with her child when the time comes. “I don’t want to be his friend, but I want to have communication where he’ll ask questions and come and talk to me about it.”

Once teens were talking the topic of date rape was once again brought up. “Do you guys know what rape is,” asked Kiara Pittman, rape crisis advocate with Suncoast Center, Inc.

Pittman delved into the myths associated with rape, such as that more rapes occur by total strangers. In fact, according to Pittman, nearly 80 percent of the rape exams she performs point to a friend or family member as the culprit.

“Acquaintance rape is higher than with a stranger,” said Pittman who discussed the reasons behind the epidemic. “They think that they can take advantage of that person because they know that person.”

Pittman encourages women and men who have been sexually assaulted to speak up, get counseling and report the abuse. As an advocate, Pittman walks the victims through the process of reporting the crime “so they have someone to be with them every step of the way.”

For those not involved in rape, but who are having sex, Pittman went on to discuss the law behind having intercourse before the age of 16, citing it’s illegality in the state of Florida.

“I know some of you guys are having sexual experiences before that age, I’m not judging you,” she said. “That is called still statutory rape, even if it’s consensual because of the ages.”

Caring for Girls Academy Inc. is a nonprofit organization started in 2011 that works with female victims of sexual and physical abuse through individual and group family counseling to enrichment classes. Their goal in phase one of their program is to provide therapy, in-home counseling to girls from 12-18 years old.

Long-term, Caring for Girls Academy would like to expand to providing not only therapeutic services to those suffering from physical and sexual abuse, but to also provide housing.

“Sometimes we would be sleeping in the office at two o’clock in the morning waiting for a phone call,” said Dr. Shari Hooker, president and founder of the Caring for Girls organization.

Once a soldier on the front lines of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), Hooker experienced the trauma these young girls faced firsthand. Time and time again, Hooker would have a difficult time placing the abused girls in foster care because most only wanted to go to a female.

“If they heard a man’s voice they wouldn’t go into the home,” she said. “That was an issue because there wasn’t that many [female homes].”

From this her desire grew. Hooker went back to school earning a doctorate in psychology and started up Caring for Girls. Now she is looking for sponsors and applying for grants so that she can embark on the second phase of her journey, providing 24 hours of supervision in a group home setting for up to 20 girls who may not get placed in a home otherwise.

In the meantime however, Hooker hopes to keep the seminars going once a month – open to both boys and girls. She is partnering with smaller nonprofits in the area such as My Daughter’s Keeper and Thaise Educational and Exposure Tours, Inc. which is a tutoring and mentoring program along 18th Avenue South, that also provides counseling to youths 10 -18 while exposing them to local colleges and area tours.

“We’re going to be working with kids in the neighborhood talking about issues that relate to them,” explained Hooker who hopes word of mouth, along with her flyers will bring more teens out.

For more information on Caring for Girls or how to donate to the organization, check out Caring4girls.org or call 727-346-8197.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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