Tyra J. "Heaven" Suggs is good at talking to her peers and teens. The 22-year-old graduate student from O'Fallon sees it as a gift.
"As I got older, parents would notice kids were attracted to me, even at church," said Tyra, sitting in her upstairs office at Faith United Baptist Church in O'Fallon. They'd say, "I want to talk to you, Can I pull you aside?"
Before she knew it, she had taken over the youth department of her church.
"About four years ago, I started GEMS, a ministry (for teen girls) in the church that's grown into a not-for-profit." GEMS stands for Girls Empowered and Motivated Spiritually through Christ.
On Saturday, Tyra will be part of the Teen Queen conference at Faith United Baptist Church, 112 W. Washington St., O'Fallon. The free event is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Registration and breakfast begin at 8:15; lunch is included. Francella Jackson opens the conference. Tyra will talk about being a teen. Her mother, Catherine Suggs, will address hygiene and growing into womanhood; Felicia Clay's topic is job readiness; Keela Williams will discss turning your life around. For information about the Teen Queen conference, call 618 420-1270.
Once a week, Tyra gets together with teen girls at the church to talk, offer advice and dream about the future.
"It's a place where we can come and be ourselves," said Jazzmyne Robinson, 18, an O'Fallon Township High School senior. "You get to express yourself. If you are stressed during the week, you can just breathe."
What can stress them?
"Boys," said Tamazya Cook, 15, an O'Fallon Township sophomore.
"Relationships," said Kamil Frierson, 15, a Belleville West freshman.
What advice do they get?
"Don't kiss the boys," said Tamazya.
"Have respect for yourself," said Jamiya Smith, 15, an OFallon High freshman.
"Save your body," said Tamazya. "It's a temple."
Other themes? Watch what you post. Accept other people. Ignore people who start stuff or try to start stuff and keep moving forward.
"Sometimes it's uncomfortable, but a good uncomfortable," said Havalyn Frierson, 12, a West Junior High seventh-grader. "You need to learn."
Tyra, who is working on her master's in human resource development at Webster University, comes to the GEMS meeting with a game plan.
"We always pray to start. They are not introverts. Once I say one thing, they are going. It can be as simple as 'What's going on?' I don't have to draw any of them out."
Here's a little more about Tyra.
What were you like growing up? "I have always been an extrovert. I wanted to have my hand in everything -- choirs, plays -- I wanted to be a part of it all, stay active. had lot sof friends growing up and lots of fun as teenager."
Did you ever have self-esteem issues? "Most of it was during grade school. My teeth weren't perfect. My eyes were too big. My legs were long and skinny. I was made fun of. I was being bullied. Everything I embrace now, wasn't funny in grade school. My issues weren't that bad, but for me, they were that bad."
Her parents' break-up when she was 12 also upset her.
"I was not OK with their separation. I was too young to really understand what the point of it was. As a child whose parents are getting divorce, I didn't know whose side to take or if I was to blame."
What do the girls like to talk about during GEMs meetings? "Most of the time, it's self-esteem issues, famiy separations issues, divorces and boys. Of course, boys are one of the main issues -- 'He wants me to do things I shouldn't. How show I handle that?' 'I like him. I don't think he likes me.' It's common stuff."
What do you tell them? "I tell them if I have been in that situation. This is what I did or this is what I did wrong; I want you to do the opposite. It's not a heavy burden. I enjoy it. I pray about it, and give them the answer that fits."
Who are your role models? "The two people I model myself after are my godfather and my mother. Ten years ago, my godfather (the Rev. Willie D. Brown) took over as pastor. He's always called me God's gift from heaven.
"They are hard workers, strategic workers. My godfather a big dreamer. He sees it and goes after it. My mother (an accountant for the U.S. postal service) is a logical thinker."
How do you get through a bad day? "I give myself one day to sulk. The next day, I pick myself up, put on a fresh face go on and start working again. I have to pick up and keep going and make the next day the best day."
About Tyra Suggs
Where she lives: O'Fallon
Family: mom Catherine and a brother Maurio, seven years older
School: Fort Bowman Academy in Cahokia; Cahokia High School for three years, then Belleville East. "I recently graduated from Jackson State University (in Jackson, Miss.) and am working on my master's in human resource development at Webster University."
Favorite food: "Lobster. If I could have it everyday, I would."
Favorite place to eat out: Kobe Steakhouse at Westport
Favorite book: "I have recently been stuck on 'The Hunger Games.' I'm not a big science-fiction fan, but I'm a Hunger Games fan."
Favorite movie: "My childhood favorite movie was Spike Lee's 'Crooklyn' about a young girl, 13, whose mom is dying of cancer and they're having household issues. She took over. It's about how she got through all the issues in her household and neighborhood. I kind of related to how strong she was."
Favorite place to shop: H&M
Last good purchase: "A pair of shoes from Dillards. They were heels. I'm 5-foot-3. I like heels that are 4 1/2 inches or taller."
What do you like to do for fun? "I enjoy going to hear live music. I sing. My favorite live musical is 'The Phantom of the Opera.' Anything that has live music I enjoy."
Favorite role: "In college, I liked acting. I played an 80-year-old woman in 'Livin' Fat.' Once they finished putting me in makeup, you couldn't tell my age. I had a lot of fun doing it. I got a standing ovation and won awards from my university for that."
Favorite music: Neo-soul, India Arie, Jill Scott. Kenny G plays some neo-soul.
Where will you be in 10 years? "I think I will be practicing law. GEMS will be international and I hope to be married with children. I have a nephew, Jordan, that's the joy of my heart. He'll be 8 in a couple days."