SRU students help elementary school girls gain self-esteem


“Girls Rock” is a girl empowerment program started by SRU students to teach local girls in grades 3-5 about nutrition, fitness, self-esteem and building healthy relationships with friends and families.

From center, Slippery Rock University students Brianna Dillon and Leah Bailey play a game with children at the Slippery Rock Community Library as part of Girls Rock, an empowerment program for local girls in grades 3-5 that is funded by the Area Health Education Center’s AHEC Scholars Program.

Nov. 14, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — A body of research dating back nearly three decades shows that self-esteem issues for children, especially for girls, surface when they are in elementary school. Four Slippery Rock University students are doing something to set local girls in the community on the right path -- and by doing so, are paving a way for their own careers in health professions.

"Girls Rock" is a girl empowerment program started by SRU students to teach local girls in grades 3-5 about nutrition, fitness, self-esteem and building healthy relationships with friends and families. Organized through the Area Health Education Center's AHEC Scholars Program, Girls Rock is offered from 3:30-5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The program started Oct. 13 and continues through Nov. 19 at the Slippery Rock Community Library.

Gianna Polichena, a junior dual public health and health care administration and management major from Ravenna, Ohio, first came up with a similar program, called "Dynamic Darlings," five years ago near her hometown of Kent, Ohio. She and SRU students, Leah Bailey, a senior dual public health and health care administration and management major from New Eagle; Brianna Dillon, a senior public health major from Shelocta; and Alison Toth, a senior public health major from Harrisburg, run the Slippery Rock program. They are part of the first statewide cohort in the AHEC Scholars Program, a federally- and state-funded program that prepares college students in health profession and allied health majors to transform the health care system and provide care for people in rural and underserved areas.

"We are learning how to give back and it provides a good foundation for our careers," Polichena said. "(It's beneficial for the children), just to see the knowledge the girls have coming in and then watching them grow. The last program I did (in Kent), I had a girl who was quiet and would not talk and you could see that her self-esteem was really low. But by the sixth week, she had become very talkative sociable. She made it known that she wasn't afraid to be herself."

Girls Rock activities so far have included a lesson about kindness, where the girls performed skits showing examples of how they can be respectful or disrespectful to others, as well as a physical activity where the girls played bingo and performed a task, like jumping jacks, for each square they marked off. AHEC provided funding for program supplies, including healthy snacks.

The program is free for participants and so far there are seven girls enrolled. The SRCL staff and Slippery Rock Elementary School helped identify families interested in the program.

"It's about addressing the issue of trying to build self-esteem and empower girls to do more," said Joseph Robare, SRU associate professor of public health and social work. "By being kind to one another and showing what that looks like, it helps prevent girls from bullying when they are older."

Last year, Robare served as an AHEC Scholars Program instructor and worked with Jane Mullinax, executive director of the Northwest Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center, to get SRU students involved with the program.

"The topics that the they are discussing are not necessarily often addressed at home or in the schools," Mullinax said. "Sometimes families see a problem and they don't necessarily know it's related to self-esteem. (Families) are relying on the schools to do something about it, but if the (children) themselves are aware of these things then the hope is that they are going to be given the tools to know how to address it and work with it themselves. We hope a dialogue takes place and the parents become invested with aspects of their child to make (their child) a better person and become a leader. With the college students wanting to help, this makes it a win-win situation."

A national network of AHEC Scholars was established three years ago and there are now more than 50 college students in Pennsylvania conducting public health-related service projects through the program. The SRU students are among only 14 college students statewide who make up the inaugural cohort as part of the two-year program. AHEC Scholars take 40 hours of online training with a curriculum that focusses on six health-related topics, including cultural competency and social determinants of health, as well as 40 hours of experiential learning in a clinical or community based setting.

"The AHEC Scholars Program was started to carry out the mission of AHEC, which has always been to get more health professionals into rural and underserved areas across the country," Mullinax said. "There are different components and one is a community service requirement because the purpose is to put (the scholars) in the community where they are and hopefully they will serve (the community) later when they are practicing as professionals."

To learn more about enrolling a child in Girls Rock, contact Polichena by emailing To learn more about becoming an AHEC Scholar, visit

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