By MIKE CHAIKEN
Build them up before someone else breaks them down.
That is the goal of Empower U Inc.’s Girls Only Transformation Weekend, which was held earlier this month at the Courtyard by Marriott in Manchester, Conn.
The program, which was held last year as well, is organized and taught by former Southington resident and Miss Teen USA 2012, Logan West.
The program is intended for girls ages 8 to 14.
West said today’s culture is all about breaking girls down. But the Transformation Weekend’s goal was to help build the girls up.
Many girls now feel they aren’t valued or good enough unless they have millions of followers on social media and thousands of likes on their photographs, explained West, who also operates the non-profit United Against Bullies At the transformation weekend, West said she tries to teach the girls that “appearance is only part of what they are. I teach them character is what’s important and they need to share that with the world and forget about everything else.”
During the weekend, West said girls were given several tasks to accomplish her goals. For instance, the girls were asked to write entries into a journal “to get in touch what their dreams are and what they’re good at.” In addition, West said she brought in a fashion stylist to teach the girls how to “dress for yourself and not the public. It’s about self-expression.”
There also were guided “girl talks” to discuss issues girls face today and to allow the girls to share their personal experiences.
The idea is to “tap into their girl power and show them they have a lot to offer despite what people tell them,” said West.
Plainville’s Paige Levesque was among the girls participating in the program this year.
“I’ve experienced bullying first hand,” said Levesque, talking about why she wanted to be part of the weekend. “I definitely have seen it in my own school.”
“I wanted to come here to learn new ways the schools didn’t teach us to prevent (bullying),” said Levesque.
One of the exercises Levesque enjoyed at the weekend was the skits performed by the girls, describing different types of scenarios that required the girls to respond to them. “It showed us that although some people might define (certain actions as only) mean behavior, it actually is bullying.”
Going back to Plainville, Levesque said, “I can definitely show them some of the ways Logan taught us to respect everyone and accept everyone for what they are. I want to spread that message though Plainville so everyone can get a little taste of this.”
Former Southington resident Madison Yurgaitis was one of the chaperones for the program this year. She liked the Girls Only Transformation Weekend because it brings together a group of girls from different backgrounds and different experience to talk about bullying. “It’s really interesting how everyone has a different take on everything.”
Yurgaitis also said she appreciated how everyone started to gain confidence by the weekend’s conclusion. “I know everything we teach them in the program, they can take out in their life and share with other people.”
Shayanne Ogilvie attended the first Girls Only Transformation Weekend last year. “It was fun and it’s fun to see Logan again because she’s so passionate about this.
“I haven’t been bullied,” said Ogilvie, “but it was interesting to hear other people how they experienced it and how different people deal with different situations.”
Janae James, another chaperone, said she wanted to be on hand this year because, “I feel the girls really need something where they can uplift themselves and just learn they are beautiful the way they are.”
James said she hopes the girls learn, “Outside influences are great to some degree but they need to be themselves and who they say they are.”
Alyssa Lego attended the first event last year as a participant and returned this year to serve as a chaperone. She found it a positive experience. And she was glad to return to teach other girls about empowerment and anti-bully techniques. She also enjoyed being able to help the girls “get to know themselves and love that person.”
The Courtyard by Marriott in Manchester stepped forward to help the Empower U Inc.’s weekend. They helped provide rooms for the girls, said West. They also allowed the girls to use the pool, and provided breakfast and snacks.
The Marriott Corporation is also considering taking this program to other hotels across the country, said West.
Peter Marks, the manager of the Marriott, said he found West’s program appealing because “The world of 24/7 social media surrounding our children requires new approaches to help, teach and support this new generation. I believe Logan’s program does this in an intimate and creative way, outside of school and other social club pressures.”
Marks said the program fits the mission of the hotel because “The Courtyard by Marriott Hartford Manchester believes in giving back to the community in which we live and work. Many of the children attending the program are from the regional area and will benefit from this workshop. We like to be good stewards in our community and help a large variety of different charities.
Marks said the hotel feels Empower U Inc. is worth bringing to other communities because “The transformation of the children who attended, combined with the message of self-worth and support are a great way to help this new generation navigate an always-on social landscape with ever faster and more overarching social media interactions throughout their entire life.”
West said the genesis of the program was inspired by her own personal experience.
“It wasn’t until I got to college I realized how great my parents are,” said West. “They really built me up to be a strong confident woman.”
When she was in college, West said, “I saw how many girls lack that confidence. They found their worth in half naked photographs on Instagram and other people accepting them.”
“I was confident in my own skin.”
“I realized more people were unlike me than like me,” said West.
Yurgaitis said the program also reflected her own personal experiences. She said she has moved from a couple of schools. And often found it difficult to fit in. “I’ve been bullied. I’ve been excluded… for a bunch of different reasons.”
“Everything we learn is very helpful and useful for everyone,” said Yurgaitis.
James said she has never been bullied. But she has been a bystander to bullying.
James said West’s program has taught her being a bystander is “almost as bad as being the bully.”
“I think Logan has a very positive message she wants to share,” said Patricia West, West’s mother.
“My dream is (the girls) walk away better young ladies,” said Patricia West, “that they learned inner beauty is the most important thing. What you look like, you have no control over.”
Both Logan West and her sister Sydney West have held titles in the Miss USA and Miss America pageant systems. But, their mother has told them, “Don’t rely on (your looks)… Rely on your character.”
PHOTOS by MIKE CHAIKEN