Free horseback riding, kayaking, ice skating, swimming lessons, African dance classes and tennis lessons. That would sound good to a lot of people on the Island, but it’s being offered to girls 11 to 14 years old.
The program is called ABLE — Adolescent Balanced Living Experience — and it is part of the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard. It started last fall and attendance has been growing with each session.
“It was designed with a focus on building self-esteem for adolescent girls,” program director Amanda Cohen said. “We focus on making healthy choices about nutrition and exercise. We also focus on things like standing up to bullies, communication, how to be a good friend — all those things that girls at this age need support around. But the most important piece about this program, in my opinion, is it’s really fun,” she added.
The fourth eight-week session begins Monday, Sept. 17, and a few spaces are still available. Young women can be referred by parents, guidance counsellors and teachers into ABLE’s winter and spring sessions, as well.
“Every single adolescent girl — and adolescent boy — could use a program like this,” Ms. Cohen said. “This is one of the many programs that the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard is doing out of their offices of Y without Walls, and we hope it can continue for a long time.”
Each session lasts two months and meets every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 5:30 p.m. On Mondays, the group meets at the YMCA teen center, in the Cottager’s Corner building in Oak Bluffs. On Wednesdays, they take a taxi somewhere in the community for an activity.
“We’ve done swimming lessons at Mansion House, tennis lessons at Vineyard Tennis Center, African dance classes with Myra Romain,” Ms. Cohen rattled off. “We’ve gone to Felix Neck and gone kayaking. We’ve gone horseback riding at Arrowhead and Crow Hollow Farm. We go to Curves. We go to Be Strong, which is a small independently run work-out center in Oak Bluffs.”
And the list goes on.
“Our focus is around teaching the girls healthy habits at an early age so they can have these skills and tools for a lifetime,” she said.
On their first day, the girls sign a contract promising to make a commitment to the program and attend for the whole eight weeks. On their last day, there is an awards ceremony that the girls’ families are invited to. The girls write appreciation notes to each other, which Ms. Cohen and co-facilitator Nancy Canha read aloud.
At the last ceremony, Island chef Tina Miller helped the group make it a pizza party too, by teaching them to make whole wheat pizza.
“The community has helped support this program. We’ve had people come in to do lectures or teach classes — and a lot of times they waive their full fee. So it’s a wonderful way for the girls to start to see some of the resources in the community, to see what’s available to them,” Ms. Cohen said.
“In the past, the horseback riding has been one of the most rewarding experiences. A lot of the girls are afraid of the horses and by the end of the session, they’re more confident because they’ve tackled that challenge and succeeded in doing something that was new and challenging for them. The other thing we’ve done is the ropes course with Capt. Bob Ogden, which I thought was a great experience to find out what is an effective leader.”
When girls complete the program, they have the opportunity to become counselors in training. One past participant, Leah Fortes, is thinking about doing that.
“I think she walked away from it feeling better about who she was — stronger. I think it built her self-esteem,” her mother, Barbara Fortes said. “They used the time they had to the fullest. They squeezed a lot into a small program.”
The ABLE program was born from a grant that YMCA employees Sheri Sidoti and Anna Luckey applied for last year. The program will receive the grant money for three years.
When she is not leading the program two afternoons a week, Ms. Cohen is an emergency services clinician at Island Counseling Center, a part of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.
“What the parents said most, that really stuck with me, is how happy the kids are when they come home,” Ms. Cohen said. “Programs like these are things that the Y wants to bring more and more to the community.”
To register or for more information, call the YMCA office at 508-696-7171, extension 4.