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FALLS' 'LET'S TALK' PROJECT IS PROVIDING MORE THAN LIP SERVICE TO YOUNG GIRLS

The neighborhood surrounding the Family Resource Building on Ninth Street in Niagara Falls is fraying. Rusty iron factories line treeless streets, and the area's few office buildings have been abandoned.

Some might even say this place is depressing. That is, until they've spent five minutes in the neighborhood's brightly lighted family center.

On any given evening, groups of chatty girls and boys dribble basketballs in the gym, while the younger kids play games down the hall and teen-agers make small talk under a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.

Despite its tattered edges, hope in this community is alive and well. Skeptics need only look in the eyes of 13-year-old Chrisheena Hill.

"I want to be some sort of teacher," she explains calmly. "But I also like nursing because I like learning about different body parts. I like Spanish, too."

Chrisheena, an eighth-grade student at Gaskill Middle School, is one of about 20 neighborhood girls who come to the center every Wednesday evening to participate in Let's Talk, a yearlong, loosely structured program for girls between ages 10 and 18.

Let's Talk brings in experts from the community to talk with the girls about such subjects as peer pressure, self-esteem, sexuality, domestic abuse, spirituality and anything else that might weigh on their minds.

On this particular Wednesday, Chrisheena is hunched over a large oak table, and with colorful paints and brushes is busily mapping out her life. While the other girls around the table paint flowers and hearts, Chrisheena is laying down her plans: College at age 18. Marriage by 28. And she wants to own a car and have four kids, too -- preferably girls.

It's all right there in pink, purple, yellow and white.

Her instructors at Let's Talk would be proud. Teaching girls to abstain from sexual relations until they're older, wiser and married is the program's main objective, according to the center's program coordinator, Khaleelah Shareef.

"The message of abstinence is an ongoing part of what we do here," says Shareef. That means rationalizations like "It's OK if you love someone" or "If you think you're ready" don't fly here.

What Shareef and her colleagues at the Housing Authority are telling the girls is to wait.

Where other organizations use lectures or some other didactic means of teaching girls to say no, Let's Talk chooses to tackle the problem of teen-age pregnancy by nurturing the girls' sense of self-worth.

"Studies about teen pregnancy show that the girls' self-esteem isn't where it's supposed to be," says Shareef.

The program's progressive approach, however, includes some surprisingly old-fashioned lessons. The Let's Talk curriculum reads more like an 18th century charm-school syllabus than a modern-day program to empower young women. Since 1998, when Let's Talk began, volunteers from the community have come to the center to teach the girls things like how to put on makeup, set a table properly, balance a checkbook and apply for college.

They've learned to cook, held dinner parties and a beauty pageant, sat in on conferences, volunteered on local committees and gone to the movies.

In June, they traveled to Shea's Performing Arts Center to see the play "Jitney."

The girls love the program and come faithfully, according to the program's 29-year-old coordinator, Nicole Bass, who grew up in the area and says there were no programs like Let's Talk when she joined the Housing Authority, let alone when she was a young girl.

"There were programs for boys, and boys and girls, but there wasn't anything just for girls," Bass says of her first days at the NFHA. So she went to her supervisor, Shareef, and the two sat down with some of the girls, who were already coming to the center to hang out, to see what kind of program they would want. Not long afterward, Let's Talk was born.

"We try to reach them at their level so it stays exciting for them," says Bass.

If the course curriculum sounds like something out of a Jane Austen novel, it isn't. Most of the ideas come right from the girls.

"We give her ideas on stuff we might like to do, and Nicole will see if she can find someone to come in," says 14-year-old Ashley Moore, a ninth-grade honor student at Niagara Falls High School, where in addition to being a cheerleader she has the highest average in her class.

"I liked the cooking classes we had and the etiquette classes. We had a lady come here from a makeup company. I liked that, too."

Her Let's Talk classmate Chrisheena Hill has a longer list of favorites.

"I always liked manners, place-setting arrangement, speaking with proper grammar, the lessons on abstinence and learning about our bodies and stuff," says Chrisheena, who learned about the program from an aunt who's a director at the center.

Keeping the girls happy, however, can get expensive. Although most guest speakers volunteer their efforts, and the Housing Authority receives grants to partially fund its programming, it's still not enough to support such a socially ambitious project.

To compensate, the girls sell hot dogs at the center's basketball games and raffle gift baskets to raise money for their field trips; organizations from the community also chip in.

Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center is paying for the program's current workshop, which for the past few Wednesdays has brought local artists to the center to help the girls use art to express their goals. Like all Let's Talk projects and classes, it's part of the center's ongoing efforts to encourage them to think long term.

"It allows them to see there are other areas they can put positive energy into. It gives them another avenue to be creative and self-evolved," says Shareef.

The girls' expectations for the program are a lot less complicated.

"It's basically something nice to do instead of staying home," says Chrisheena. Her friend Ashley Moore said she started coming because she was bored.

"My mom says it keeps me out of trouble," says Ashley.

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