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NEW FALLS FORUM WILL PROVIDE INFORMATION, FRIENDLY SUPPORT FOR TEEN-AGE GIRLS

Girls between the ages of 12 and 16 love to talk about everything under the sun. And whether they are listened to and have their questions answered can change their lives.

A new Niagara Falls forum, starting Monday night, will give girls a place to talk honestly with a supportive group of peers and interested women. The new program, sponsored by the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, has the working title "Let's Talk."

Annie Fields-Chapman, general manager and director of Community Services, said, "It's a new program to capture this audience. We want to enhance maybe what the parents are doing at home and get them together as a group because of some of the issues we're going to discuss. We saw the need and wanted to do something about it."

The issues slated for discussion in the year-round, ongoing program are as diverse as the girls who may attend.

Everything from mental health to makeup tips and self-esteem to spirituality will be addressed. Health care and peer pressure will be discussed, as well as a presentation by Planned Parenthood and one on job readiness.

The group will meet every Monday from 4:30 p.m. until 6 p.m. Some meetings will feature guest speakers, but there is lots of room for flexibility in the program.

"It's a forum for the young ladies to sit and talk. There are areas that we definitely are going to cover, but if one day they come in and they're down about whatever, we'll just let them speak their mind," said Ms. Fields-Chapman.

She stressed that while some of the program is already in place, the girls themselves will decide much of what goes on.

To get the ball rolling, Ms. Fields-Chapman and Let's Talk coordinator Nicole P. Bass sat down with five young women. "We said, this is what we want to do, but what do you want, what interests you, what would you like to talk about? What kinds of speakers would you like to come in and talk to you?"

Ms. Bass, 28, became interested in the project through her relationship with younger family members. She said, "My cousin was in the group of girls we decided to talk with. I'm always around them and I talk with them about different things from everyday life."

Ms. Bass, a resident of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, feels that her age gives her a different perspective.

"You know, older adults, they really can't get comfortable with them, so I try to talk with them at their level and make them feel comfortable, so they can come to me when they have a problem and talk to me," she said. Her relationship with her cousin and cousin's friends is a microcosm of what she and Ms. Fields-Chapman hope to accomplish with the Let's Talk program.

"Having this program is a good idea. A lot of girls around here, they wouldn't have anything to do or anywhere to go. I see that every day. This is an idea to open it up for them," said Ms. Bass, who is passing the word about the program throughout her neighborhood and church community. "I've been going out into the area and handing out fliers and things," she said.

Both women hope the program serves as an outlet for young women who are unable or unwilling to confide in their parents, teachers or other adults in their lives. "I hope that girls feel comfortable, when they have a problem or a certain situation, that they know that there is somewhere they can go, someone they can speak with," said Ms. Bass.

Ms. Fields-Chapman emphasized that while no one on her staff is a trained counselor, they can all make referrals. "We can refer a young lady to services that we feel she may need."

Both she and Ms. Bass plan to attend all the sessions. "We'll know what's going on because both Nicole and myself will be physically in the room during a presentation. It's not a situation where presenters come in and we say 'OK, they're yours,' because they need to be able to see and talk to both of us or one of us if they've got a question or they want to do something. They should not have to come and find us. We will be very much a part of the group," she added.

The last half-hour of each meeting is designed to give the girls in the group a chance to socialize and unwind. "We wanted to end it on a fun note," said Ms. Fields-Chapman. "Not all of the young ladies who come will know each other."

A chance to get to know one another will be provided by sharing a meal prepared by Ms. Bass' mother. The responsibility of setting the table and cleaning up after supper will fall to the girls. "Every week we'll assign someone. Come in half an hour earlier and set the table. If they don't know how to do that, we will show them how to do that. We don't want to lecture them for the full hour and a half, but we do want to give them clear, concise and accurate information on whatever it is they want to talk about," said Ms. Fields-Chapman.

No one will be turned away. The size of the group, like everything else associated with the program, is not carved in stone. "A comfortable size for a group such as this would be around 25. If we get beyond that, what we may have to do is go into a second day if they pick another day, but we'll see how the numbers look," said Ms. Fields-Chapman.

"We'd like to keep it as intimate for the young ladies as possible, but if they decide that we wind up with 40 or 50 and they all want to stay together, that's fine too. Whatever they decide works for them, that's what we'll do," she said.

For more information, contact Ms. Bass at 285-5374.