Teen Voices Program Creating Courage in Girls

By Allison Jarvis Contributing Writer

   The Mt. Blue Teen Voices program, founded by Kristen Swan in 2005, thrives today as it continues to make an impact on young girls and mentors alike. Mt. Blue Teen Voices is a literature-based program for girls in grades five to eight that creates mentoring relationships between UMF students and the programs participants. The program seeks to raise aspirations, enhance self-esteem, emphasize personal responsibility and decision making, foster inquiry, and create a strong commitment to the community for the young girls. Swan said in an email interview that the motivation behind creating a mentor program came from wanting “to address the rural isolation facing girls in the communities.” Swan adds that “these programs were created to instill a love for reading, engaging with others, being involved in the local communities, and enabling girls/teens to develop their own vision of the future.”

   The Teen Voices program provides UMF students with an opportunity to help young girls while also gaining personal insights. Heidi Chutter, a long-serving mentor for the program, has had many great experiences working with the teens. “It’s really great how excited the girls are to see us at each meeting,” said Chutter. “They always have stories they are waiting to tell us and have so much they want to share with us.”

   Mentors attend a required annual training session and are then paired with girls from Mt. Blue Middle School based on their interests. Mentors and mentees will read one book a month and attend monthly meetings to discuss what they read, and to participate in activities themed around that book. Program directors try to seek out Young Adult novels with strong female roles, often times with characters who overcome some sort of adversity. The activities vary from month to month depending on the book that is selected. Some activities include creating a personal mission statement exercise that was connected to a book character who struggled with self-esteem issues. Another activity involved teaching the girls how to code and create an app for their personal phone or school laptop after reading a book in which the main character struggled with number sequencing.

   Grace Hansen, a junior and a mentor, said that she applied to the program as an excuse to read more young adult literature. “I have a real soft spot for it and lack any other outlet,” Hansen said. She also joined the group because of her love for working with middle schoolers. “A lot of people find middle schoolers intimidating or awkward because they are in that in-between age, and though that may be true, I find them to be the most fun and inspiring group to work with.”

   The Teen Voices program also takes the girls on field trips to see a musical performance or a ballet. “Many of the girls do not have an opportunity to see live theater whether it’s a musical performance or ballet performance,” said Swan. “They are simply in awe. It’s wonderful to see their reactions.”

   The group also has had multiple guest speakers come to their monthly meetings. Previous guest speakers include several Maine authors, a Holocaust survivor, and Pam Flowers – who traveled solo on a dog sled across the arctic coast of North America. “The reason is to expose these girls as much as possible to the plethora of careers they have before them,” said Swan. “We intentionally seek strong female role models as speakers and guests.”

   The Mt. Blue Teen Voices program has made an impact on many people’s lives in the community – whether they be the mentees, the mentors, the teachers, or the participant’s parents. “My fulfilling experiences stem from parents who seek me out and tell me how much more confident their daughter has become,” said Swan. “Or from a girl who began as a mentee in fifth grade, attends UMF, and then becomes a mentor for the program.”

   “I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Chutter, referring to when she first applied for the program, “but I do know I’ve had a great time doing it.”

   “I feel as though every conversation I have with my mentee is a fulfilling moment,” said Hansen. “She is just so honest and thoughtful that, frankly, I feel as though I learn as much from her as I am hoping she learns from me.”

   Training for the program typically starts in mid-October and the program begins that same month, meeting monthly and then ending in late April. Swan encourages anyone who has a love of reading and a can-do attitude to apply. If a student wished to apply, they can contact Kirsten Swan at kswan@maine.edu, or pick up an application at the club fair.