I joined Girls' LEAP Self-Defense my freshman year of college because I needed to join a service organization for a class, and LEAP's mission statement of empowering local girls seemed perfect for me. Over the past 3 years I've spent with LEAP, I have seen their unwavering commitment to this goal and the ways in which they are constantly making improvements to better meet it. I've been deeply moved by the changes I've seen in the youth I've worked with in programs. Not only is LEAP doing wonderful work in the community, it is also a fantastic organization to be a part of. They are incredibly supportive of every staff member, from teens, to college students, to adult staff. I believe that Girls' LEAP is an example of a service organization at its best, and yet is is still growing! I am excited to keep being a part of that growth.
I joined Girls' LEAP over 2 years ago. When I first joined it was because I wanted to serve on a Board and wanted to be a part of an organization that provided direct service to youth. It was a simple reason to join and now as I look back so shortsighted. LEAP isn't just a place that provides direct services to young girls it is a place that teaches girls to have a voice and to feel empowered. Now as I am more engaged in the organization and the mission, LEAP has allowed me to reflect on my youth and on what I want for my new baby girl. LEAP does just that - it creates a community of young girls and women that allows each of us to develop as individuals while feeling a part of something greater.
Ny name is Kristen Cuneo and I am the Teen Mentor Program Coordinator for Girls’ LEAP. I have been with Girls’ LEAP for nearly 4 years, beginning when I was a summer intern. I was a college (aged) mentor, and then came on full time with the organization after I graduated in 2007. For those of you who know me as outgoing, confident and passionate – without Girls’ LEAP, I'd still be the quiet girl in the back of the classroom, struggling just to raise my hand. Like many women and girls, I was socialized to be nice, to acquiesce and to put others before myself. A lot of people think self-defense is all about karate and fighting. It’s not martial arts, and it’s not about fighting others. It is, however, about fighting for yourself. But what people need to realize is that self-defense is far more than defending your physical body - it's about keeping your mind, emotions and values safe. It's about identifying what is ok and not ok for you, and then having the courage to assert those boundaries. At Girls’ LEAP, one of the first things we teach girls to do is how to say ‘no.' The key to saying ‘no’ is to say it loudly, firmly and with a serious tone. “No, don’t touch me.” “No, I don’t want to do that.” For me, saying ‘no’ is the ultimate tool because it sends a very clear message. This inability to say what you are feeling is far more common than we realize. Growing up, I could never say what I felt, because I’d never learned the vocabulary I needed to express myself. It was stifling. Girls’ LEAP gave me a vocabulary for self-expression and self-discovery. Along with the language of boundaries, Girls’ LEAP gave me tools to be expressive, self-reflective and courageous. Not being able to say no to someone touching you is scary. Not being able to say ‘yes’ to yourself is incomprehensible. I’ve seen so many changes since I’ve been here: in myself, in teens I’ve mentored, and girls I’ve taught in programs. Let me share some of their stories: There’s Priscilla, a fiery 12 year old from a program I taught in Dorchester. Priscilla struggled with controlling her anger, and often got into fights at school. Girls’ LEAP helped her learn to manage her anger – teaching her how to calm herself down in the moment so she could make more informed choices – effectively teaching her how to say yes to keeping herself safe. For the teens that work with us, many have never experienced an environment as empowering as ours. Many avoided all-female environments due to drama they’d experienced in the past. Latia, 16-year old Teen Mentor said, “I appreciate that you guys let me open up to you and show you girls the real me. I smile because there isn’t any other group of people that have cared for me like you guys. I will never forget this summer.” There are so many others like Priscilla and Latia. Girls are telling us that sexual harassment is pervasive in their lives and harassment and abuse is often normalized. Girls tell us they have no one to turn to to discuss this violence and explore constructive responses. Girls are telling us they don’t have a voice to say no or yes - Girls' LEAP gives girls their voices.