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FEATURED ARTICLE


My Year in the Sisterhood Project: A Story of
Community Building

By NANETTE TUMMERS, Ed. D.

sisDr. Tummers is an associate professor of health education at Eastern Connecticut State University. Community service learning is an integral aspect of her teaching and research. Nanette recently published:“Teaching Yoga for Life-Preparing Children and Teens for Healthy and Balanced Living” and “Wellness and Stress Management”. She is currently writing a book titled: “Stress Management for Our Schools”.

Imagine the hush and peace of over 30 young ladies in a room quietly journaling about the how they felt after a meditation session. Fifteen minutes earlier very few of them had ever experienced meditation! Witnessing a community of college female students and at risk high school girls connect is one of the highlights of my career.  During the fall of 2008, my sabbatical was spent in my own university town. Most sabbaticals, professors leave for exotic research locales or hibernate at home typing away as far away from students as possible. I spent this time working with at risk students (little sisters) mentored by college students (big sisters) in a program called “The Sisterhood Project”.

College students from a small public liberal arts university, who were also called big sisters, volunteered to serve as mentors for at risk high school girls. Word of mouth and recommendations from faculty and staff helped in the recruitment of the big sisters. There were two sites for this project. The local high school was one of the cohorts. The high school students, or little sisters, were recruited by the high school’s counseling center and health center. The other cohort was a residential treatment program for girls placed by a state agency who receive treatment for emotional health issues.  The high school students participated in the project at the university at the student center, the hub of student life at the university. With the residential cohort, the activities took place at the residential facility.

sisThe Sisterhood Project consisted of eight weekly after school sessions of mentoring and social/emotional development experiential activities for both big sisters and little sisters to experience together. Each session started with a discussion and journal questions themed around a social/emotional development issue such as recognizing and dealing with stress. This was followed by an experiential activity for stress management, building trust, or group coherence.  Examples of activities include yoga, relaxation, meditation, using stress balls and art therapy. A healthy snack was provided each week, as well as a time for the sisters to talk. One session was a spa day where a massage therapist provided chair massages along with manicures, aromatherapy, and facials.  Each session finished with a “loving kindness” meditation. Loving kindness meditation is an ancient practice that cultivates compassion and caring for yourself and then expanding those feeling to others.  All the members of the sisterhood stated aloud together in a circle holding hands, the following statements: “may we the members of the sisterhood be safe; may we the members of the sisterhood be happy just the way we are; may we the members of the sisterhood be at peace with whatever comes; and may we the members of the sisterhood live in the softness of our hearts.” This closing each week was a profound way to for the sisters to experience how important their thoughts and actions contribute to the community they are building and taking responsibility for.

All the sisters wrote each other introduction letters telling each other about their favorite movies, their strengths and challenges etc. Each sister signed a confidentiality pledge indicating “what happens in the sisterhood stays in the sisterhood!” The culminating experience of the project is the graduation ceremony where the “littles” and the “bigs” celebrated the accomplishments of their time together.  The students from the residential school came to the university campus and toured the student center and the dormitories. Taking a lot of pictures throughout the project provided photos for each sister to have a framed photo of the sisters together as a graduation gift.  A small local community grant provided funds to purchase yoga mats, journals and supplies for all the sisters.

Many of our college students come from advantaged home environments and have misperceptions of our urban centers and the students in these urban schools. Eastern Connecticut State University is located in one of the poorest districts in the state: Willimantic, CT. Willimantic is an old mill city hit hard by decades of recessions and faces issues of poverty, low graduation rates, and immigration. Students “at- risk’ for stress include a broad range of situations including, but not limited to:  family situations, exposure to crime, truancy, failing grades, anxiety, pregnancy, substance abuse, physical and emotional harassment, isolation, depression, aggression and other poor coping behaviors, and physical illness.  At risk students who are affected by excessive stress tend to respond with symptoms such as anxiety, aggression, withdrawal, and maladaptive behaviors including alcohol and drug use. Providing effective social and emotional development programs was requested by this community partnership as a critical need.

sisCommunity service learning is based on the importance of community relationship. Service learning differs from volunteering as volunteering may be an academic requirement or is a punitive requirement (i.e. judicial office enforcing community service hours). Service learning ties together academics to the real needs of the community. Although this project was not tied to an academic class or a class requirement, many of the students were majors in sociology and education. Included in the project was an investigation about resiliency and stress management. Resiliency is the ability to survive and thrive despite adverse circumstances. The college mentors were trained in mentoring and methods to promote resiliency. 

The job market for our future graduates is limited. However, providing service learning opportunities for university students can help them get out of their comfort zones and open up their world view to the possibility of their roles as leaders in these urban centers in schools, non- profits, and grassroots community organizations. For instance, just before our first session in the project, one big sister told me she didn’t think she would be a “good” enough to be a big sister to her little sister. I asked her if she would just give it one day and see what it would be like. She agreed and had one of the most challenging little sisters yet one of the most beneficial experiences; she stayed on for another semester because she loved it so much!

In the pre test before the project, high school students reported not being confident in their ability to talking openly with family and friends and the ability to handle stress. Interestingly, both “littles” and “bigs” often cited the very same stressors in their lives: school pressures including too much homework; fighting among friends and romantic relationships; and disagreements with their family members. After the project, high school students reported they could work out problems with someone who has a different opinion, and they had a friend who helped them through a hard time and supported them in doing what is right. In addition, little sisters reported they now have an adult in their lives who believes they would succeed, wants them to do their best, listens, and recognizes they can make a difference. The students were also able to identify ways to incorporate stress management tools into their daily lives and were able to demonstrate healthy behaviors of stress management. Feedback from all of the sisters suggested lengthening the project time to 10 weeks, having more time to interact with the mentors, and more opportunities for yoga. Leah (a big sister) stated: “This was a new experience for me—seeing another's point of view. Being with my little sister helped me to understand the circumstances of her life.” Jasmine (a little sister) stated: “I looked forward to the Sisterhood each week as a time I could hang out with someone who cares about me and listened to what I had to say.”

The long term goal of this project is to establish “The Sisterhood Project” as an on- going yearly community service learning model. This project builds the educational community by providing exposure for at-risk girls to emotional and social activities as well as healthy lifestyles to manage their stress. By actively participating in the “Sisterhood community” on a university campus, they will be engaged in positive mentoring relationships with college women and will hopefully see college as an option for their futures. For college students, the relationships fostered with their little sisters and witnessing the empowerment of serving others while building community is an invaluable part of their university experience. 


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