Girl Power

The Girls Values Program provides social and emotional support for Asian-American girls between the ages of 11 and 16 who live in Boston.

The program, based at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC), addresses issues such as academics, peer pressure, family relationships and identity, with the goal of helping the girls become confident as individuals, family members and leaders in the community.

The program also creates a chain of mentoring by preparing the high school girls to support the middle schoolers; the Tufts medical students then transition from direct work with the girls to more of a supporting role.

While the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center does some advertising at local schools, most girls find the program through word of mouth from their friends.

Activities include learning about nutrition (cooking or doing a healthy recipe scavenger hunt at the grocery store), personal hygiene (from learning how to shave to making face masks out of mangos and papayas), body image and sexual health. One session recruited friends for a fitness panel to show the girls what kinds of exercise they could do in an urban setting, from hula hoops and yoga to climbing stairs and even dancing in your bedroom.

The program provides a safe haven for the girls, who are able to talk about anything, no subject is considered taboo. The mentors act as older sisters for these girls, who need to turn to somebody outside the family, who can relate, listen and advise.

When she was a first-year medical student in 2006, Wilma Chan was shadowing a nurse practitioner at a clinic at Tufts Medical Center in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.

A quiet 10-year-old girl came in with her father. She was morbidly obese and already exhibiting symptoms of diabetes and other health problems.

“She was very discouraged because here are three adults lecturing her about how important it is that she has to lose weight,” recalls Chan, A03, M10. “It’s hard for adults to hear that. For a 10-year-old to hear, that is really hard.”

As the father chided his daughter about not exercising and eating the wrong foods, Chan noticed that he wasn’t talking about other things in her life that could underpin her weight problem.

“I’m thinking, ‘She probably has no idea how to do any of those things,’ ” says Chan. “No one is saying, ‘What else is going on? Who are your peers at school? What are people saying to you? How do you feel about other kids and the way they act toward you?’ ”

The same day, a 14-year-old girl came to the clinic, the Asian Pediatric and Adolescent Clinic at the Floating Hospital for Children. She was complaining that she didn’t like the way her body looked. “I was really surprised. She looked absolutely fine,” says Chan, who is finishing up her first year of her residency in emergency medicine at the University of Chicago. “Part of me was thinking, ‘Oh God, I wish I could bring you to Starbucks and sit you down and keep talking to you,’ ” she recalls.

What both girls could have benefited from, Chan realized, was a support program in which the girls could be matched with students like herself to mentor them through the challenges of adolescence. Thus, the Girls Values Program was born.

Cycle of Mentorship

Of the 10 girls in the program that first year, says Chan, none of them made the cut to gain entrance to Boston’s prestigious exam schools. The next year, as seventh graders, three-quarters of them were accepted to exam schools.

“Just seeing the level of confidence they had was very impressive and gratifying,” recalls Chan.

After three years, Chan handed the reins of the program to Hyejo Jun, A09, M13, who as an undergraduate at Tufts had been involved with the public health awareness groups Prevention, Awareness and