Senior Times: Gail Harding: Girl Power Mentor Extraordinaire

By: Jennifer Sexton-Riley

Topics: Senior issues

Gail Harding with young participants in the Girl Power Program at the Harwich Council on Aging.

Retired teacher Gail Harding of Harwich is far from finished with an aspect of her working life which she still holds dear: working with young girls and helping to strengthen and empower them mentally, emotionally and physically. Through her role as a mentor in the after-school program Girl Power, held weekly for six weeks at the Harwich Community Center, Harding enjoys working with third and fourth grade girls. The program empowers the girls by increasing their self-esteem and confidence while expanding their understanding of their possible future roles in society.
The free, voluntary program, developed by Harwich Council on Aging director Barbara-Ann Foley and organized by Foley and youth counselor Sheila House, matches young girls in one-on-one or two-on-one teams with senior women mentors for discussion, journal writing, projects, presentations by local members of the community on various subjects, cooking and enjoying healthy snacks and physical activity. For Harding, a former health teacher, the program is a perfect fit.
“I just love intergenerational learning,” Harding says. “When young girls spend time with their senior mentors, they have strong role models which in turn enables them to grow into strong women. The one-on-one or two-on-one interaction is very personal, so the relationships that form are quite warm and affectionate. The girls are dropped right off at the community center from the school bus, and their parents are clearly grateful for the benefits the program offers when they arrive to pick up their girls, as their daughters are eager to introduce their mentors. They say, 'Come meet my GG,' which is what they call me. It stands for Grandma Gail. It is a wonderful program for the girls, the mentors and the parents.”
A side effect of today's mobile culture is the phenomenon of families moving from state to state around the country and beyond to follow employment and educational opportunities. While wonderful for careers, the distances that grow between family members and between generations can result in the loss of a beneficial family dynamic which was a given in days gone by – the interaction between grandchildren and grandparents. With grandma a few states away instead of down the street, the afternoons gardening, baking, playing cards and chatting with the youngsters that past generations knew may take place only during longed-for visits. With a program like Girl Power, the intergenerational give-and-take is back, and the benefits are many.
At every session, mentors and mentees are introduced to a topic. Each has her own journal, and as concepts are explored questions are introduced, which are then answered and expanded upon within the journals. Then there is time for sharing each other's thoughts and learning from each other.
“It is so simple,” Harding says. “We all learn about what makes ourselves and each other unique, and then conversations grow from those discussions. For example, I have a giraffe collection. I talk about my giraffe collection, and then of course someone asks if I will please bring in a photo of some of the giraffes. Or once I mentioned that one of the girls in the program shared her first name with one of my granddaughters, and she asked if I would please bring in a photo of her so she could see what this other person who shares her name looks like. It's just a very simple, fun, valuable way to connect.”
The members of the community who come in to speak with the group and share their expertise may range from a social worker who comes in to discuss the subject of friendship, bullying, and other social interactions to a yoga instructor who shares a chair yoga class, to a pair of young police officers discussing Internet safety, to a martial arts teacher who gives the girls a chance to raise their voices and their fists of fury as they ward off an imaginary aggressor.
“It really is fun,” Harding says. “The girls just loved the self defense class, and it is healthy for them to see that their senior mentors are also interested in their physical health and activity. In fact, at the end of each six-week session, we all enter the Harwich Road Race together in June. We share a spaghetti dinner the night before to carb-load, and the next day in our matching T-shirts we all run – or walk, as many of us do – to the finish line. It is a great way to complete the program with a sense of accomplishment.”
Harding points out that research shows the huge difference that takes place in a young person's development when just one adult takes an interest and makes the person feel special, even if caring and supportive parents are not part of the picture.
“So imagine what a positive impact we are making in these girls' lives, who do have loving parents in their lives,” Harding says. “We are all helping create strong individuals who will then, in turn, help pass that gift along to the children in their future lives. You know, I always thought having healthy, happy children would be the greatest gift for me as a parent. I didn't know that the truly greatest gift would be seeing my own adult children being wonderful parents to their own children, my grandchildren. That is the greatest gift for me as a parent. I feel that through Girl Power I am providing the same sort of far-reaching benefit to the girls who participate. What a gift to all of us.”
To take part in or learn more about the Girl Power after school program, whether as a senior mentor, as a parent of a young participant or by sharing your area of expertise as a member of the community, call Harwich Council on Aging director Barbara-Ann Foley at 508-430-7550.