By AMANDA C. DAVIS
South Range High School freshmen Anna Cullar and Melissa Melnick feel more comfortable these days walking in the hallways at the high school.
In a world where seniors are often off limits or intimidating to underclassmen, Cullar and Melnick are hanging out — even socializing — with their senior “sisters.”
A program in its infancy, The Sisterhood pairs 43 freshman and 34 senior girls for mentoring as a way to improve peer relations, communication, self-esteem and overall morale.
Fifteen female professionals from the community — including teachers, a judge, professors and business owners — also play a part, lending themselves to help students connect and network.
The program came about after Principal Phil Latessa and high school guidance counselor Cindy Maynard decided to try and stop the typical he-said-she-said trap of adolescence. The catalyst, they say, was social conflict among freshmen girls last year.
Seniors Marie Downie and Hilary Skidmore said The Sisterhood helps bring together students who may otherwise not get to know each other, making relations less awkward.
Both have taken on leadership roles in The Sisterhood as part of their senior projects, a requirement for Bonnie Molnar’s English class. At the end of the year, they will have to make presentations before a panel of judges and write term papers.
“Our senior girls are our best resource for our freshmen girls,” said Maynard, whose daughter, Hayley, is a freshman in the program.
Latessa, who is known as “Mr. Sister” within the group, said the girls are learning lessons now that will help them in the future. “They may not even know what they’re getting out of this until later in life,” he said.
The group will also be working with the Emerging Leaders organization at Youngstown State University, which will teach the seniors about leadership and mentoring.
Cullar is paired with Downie, and Melnick with Skidmore. Melnick attended district schools in second and third grades but was homeschooled until this year. “I didn’t know anyone,” she said, explaining The Sisterhood has made the transition easier for her.
The pairs hang out outside of school, occasionally going to the mall, or in Melnick’s case, getting together to plan what to wear to homecoming.
The group had a sleepover in August at Skate Zone in Austintown, which is owned by Maynard and her husband. They watched the movie “Odd Girl Out,” which delves into typical adolescent issues including peer pressure, and had a discussion afterward.
The Maynards also own USA Cinema in the Great East Plaza in Niles, where the YWCA of Warren will screen “America the Beautiful” on Feb. 28. The Sisterhood will attend the show, which deals with the way women are portrayed in the media, Maynard said.
“We’re all competing against unreal images,” she said, explaining many pictures of celebrities and models we see have been doctored to create perfection.
The group traveled to Pittsburgh in October to see the musical “Wicked,” and recently held a tailgate party before a football game.
The Sisterhood is also planning an event called “Thrift Store Skating,” where everyone takes a few dollars to the thrift store, buys outrageous outfits and wears them while roller skating.
Latessa said a program for boys called Other Brothers is in the works. Because boys don’t get involved in things such as gossip and jealousy as much as girls, the principal said Other Brothers will likely be more social in nature. An evening of video games is being planned for December.
Sherry Sheely, whose husband’s family owns Sheely’s Furniture in North Lima, is a member of the group and called the program “fabulous.” As it evolves over the years, she said, girls in other grades and at the middle school level would eventually be involved in the mentoring.
“Things that happen to you at that age can affect you for a long, long time,” she said, explaining the cattiness between girls will eventually dissipate as The Sisterhood progresses.
Judge Beth Smith, of Mahoning County Domestic Relations Court, participates in The Sisterhood and has a daughter, Mackenzie Compton, in seventh grade at the middle school. She applauds the district for attacking the social problems among teens and said lessons in civility and manners should start at home.
“I think it’s very difficult for children today” in terms of peer pressure, fitting in and making friends, she said. The judge called the school’s initiative “very worthwhile” and said she hopes other local district’s follow South Range’s lead.
The Sisterhood meets monthly. For now, the program is funded mainly through Latessa’s principal’s fund, with some donations. Fund-raising events are planned.
Latessa said female leaders in the community interested in participating should call him or Maynard at (330) 549-2163.