Corinne Kwapis sensed a lack of community among the female students at Belleville East High School. She wanted to give them a sense of belonging.
Kwapis' vision lead to the creation of a program called Empower Me, a collaboration between Belleville East and a local nonprofit group, Project Compassion.
"Even though, we all come from different backgrounds. We have two things in common -- we are all girls and we go to Belleville East," said Kwapis, an 18-year-old senior from Fairview Heights.
Since the Empower Me program began in January, Kwapis said roughly half the female students at East has joined the movement, a total of 600 freshmen to senior girls.
"It was pleasantly shocking how quickly the movement caught on," said Belleville East Principal Stephanie Posey. "They have been eager to embrace the idea that we can be more respectful of each other and themselves."
The Empower Me program is designed to help female students recognize their worth, celebrate their successes and learn life skills. Kwapis' goal for the program was to create new experiences for the girls and strengthen their bond.
One such experience was In Their Shoes, an event organized by the Violence Prevention Center of Southwestern Illinois and the Empower Me program. The interactive program, developed by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, allows participants to assume the identity of a teen in a domestic situation.
The center's Director of Prevention Debra Mize said it's easy for people to say if it happened to them, they would just leave, but would they really make that choice? The young women at East participating could make a variety of choices in their re-enacted domestic situation and then walk through the consequences of those choices. "Sometimes short-term decisions have long-term consequences," Mize said.
At the end of the violence prevention program, East students listened to a letter from the mother of a woman who died as a result of dating violence. "Anytime anyone is being threatened call the police," Mize said. "If you are scared for somebody, tell them."
Rachel Jackson-Bramwell, founder and executive director of Project Compassion and a 1999 Belleville East graduate, spoke to young women at East on several occasions about what it means to be an empowered woman. She said she wants to help the students understand "beauty is from the inside out" and teach them to work together rather than against each other.
"We are sisters. We have to come together; work together and stop the cat fighting," said Jackson-Bramwell, who worked with Kwapis and East to create "Empower Me."
She said her goal for the program was "to help the girls identify with their own self-worth and self-esteem issues." In addition, she said she wanted to teach the girls not to settle for anything degrading.
Posey said Jackson-Bramwell has been a "great motivator" and "good resource" for the girls.
Empower Me participants at East kick it into high gear every Wednesday in a Focus on Fitness class taught by Stacie Panek, a 1982 Belleville East graduate.
"An empowered girl is not only mentally strong but physically strong," Kwapis said.
Panek, a health and wellness student at
McKendree, teaches kickboxing, boot camp and cardio classes to the young women at East and talks to them about leading a healthy lifestyle.
"They are an amazing group of girls," Panek said. "This is a beautiful program for the girls. It helps them drive a little bit deeper in thinking about things in their life."
The girls in Empower Me are big fans of the fitness classes. East junior Olivia Clark, 16, said the classes help get her into shape. "It's a really good workout," she said. "It brings all of us girls together, and we can get to know each other and exercise."
East senior Jacqueline Yokoyama, 17, said she also enjoys the classes and has learned a lot about fitness and health from Panek. In addition, Yokoyama said she liked making new friends. "Because of the program, I have seen girls stepping up and being leaders in the school," she said. "It's really inspiring to see other students do that."
Kwapis wanted to bring female mentors like Jackson-Bramwell and Panek, who graduated from Belleville East, into the program. "I wanted the girls to see success comes from Belleville East," Kwapis said.
Belleville East teacher Crystal Nesbit, who sponsors Empower Me along with Amy Schulte, commended Kwapis for her leadership. "Corinne had this vision and just ran with it," Nesbit said. "For a high school student to be able to do that is amazing."
In celebration of the Empower Me movement, Kwapis said female students at East are invited to attend a rally from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday in the gymnasium. Prominent women from throughout the metro-east will be at the rally including: Amanda Guinn, program director for Belleville AmeriCorps; St. Clair County Circuit Clerk Kahalah Clay; and Assistant U.S. Attorney Suzanne M. Garrison.
"I want them to see powerful women from the community," Jackson-Bramwell said. "This will give them a chance to see who's in the community and who's making a difference."
The 14-week Empower Me program at East concludes May 1, but Posey hopes to expand it next year. "We are certainly hoping to make this Corinne's legacy and carry this over and make it bigger and better next year and for years to come," Posey said. "We hope we can make this, as Corinne calls it, a movement -- that is a daily basis, all day, every day. That this is just a mindset for girls when they come to East."
There has been some discussion about creating a similar program for the male students, according to Posey. "When all kids feel better about themselves and have the resources they need to lift their self-esteem or deal with issues as they come up, I think we see better students, better grades, better attendance -- all of those things are a positive attribute to the underlying current of positive self-esteem."
East junior Jill Humphreys, 17, said she's a big supporter of the Empower Me program and is interested in leading it next year. "It makes me feel self confident about myself," she said. "When I leave, I feel so empowered like nothing can bring me down."
Too often, Humphreys said girls denigrate each other. "They say it as a joke, but it's not funny," she said. "It doesn't matter what they say. It matters how you feel about yourself."
In recognition of her vision to bring the Empower Me program to East, Kwapis was recognized with a Racial Harmony award presented by the Center for Racial Harmony in February. Kwapis, who's in the top 10 percent of her class, plans to attend Marquette University in Milwaukee this fall.
Since the creation of the Empower Me program, Kwapis said, "empower has become a top word in my vocabulary."
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org.