Autumn Coleman and Ashunti Goggins, seniors at McDonough High School in Henry County, Ga., weren’t always friends. In fact, they didn’t like each other at all when they started their high school journey three years ago. That was before the SOAR club, coordinated by CIS site coordinator Kara Colley, became their sisterhood.
“Some people think that teenagers have it all together,” said Colley. “They don’t. They need support too.”
SOAR stands for: Situations will happen, identify the Obstacles, take Action to resolve them, and expect good Results. It’s a teen girls’ club that builds self-esteem, encourages community service, and enhances self-discipline. Meetings are bi-monthly in the school, along with structured after-school activities.
At meetings girls are mentored in life skills, especially behavior and emotional regulation, which Ms. Colley sites as some of the most common barriers to academic achievement. Life skills cover a broad range of topics that include personal health and hygiene, job attainment, money management and other essential skills such as how to study, how to manage time, and how to set and achieve goals. Students like Autumn and Ashunti work on new ways to engage more effectively with others, resolve issues diplomatically, and understand the importance of compromise, patience, and other social values. Ms. Colley’s SOAR club currently has 40 students, her largest group yet.
“When I started in the SOAR program my heart was cold,” said Ashunti. “I had to learn to open up. We didn’t even know why we didn’t like each other.”
“Now I probably hang out with Ashunti the most,” said Autumn, smiling and bumping into her friend during a video interview for Henry County’s year-end fundraising campaign.
Autumn was new to the city of McDonough her freshman year after going through the trauma of homelessness with her mother throughout middle school.
She was a self declared “troublemaker.” Despite her natural high intelligence, she found herself getting kicked out of classes, even ones she loved, because of all her bottled up emotions.
“I made a name for myself that I didn’t like. I started out freshmen year getting into fights. I wasn’t going to graduate. My mom didn’t believe in me anymore. And it hurt. It hurt bad,” said Autumn. “I was referred to Ms. Colley and put in a group called SOAR. I went in thinking I wouldn’t like anyone, I wouldn’t want to spend my time in meetings. Ms. Colley could see that I had a lot of growing up to do. But SOAR wasn’t just a group of girls, it was girls who wanted to be heard, and it was a sisterhood. I went from a person with average grades to one with straight A’s. I have my name back. I’m not labeled as a troublemaker anymore. The teachers, principal, and counselors respect me as a student now.”
Her friend, Ashunti, was facing similar feelings of alienation because of poverty and behavioral problems in the classroom.
“I wasn’t asking for help because I didn’t want it at the time. I didn’t want anyone to help me. I felt alone,” Ashunti said. “In 9th and 10th grade I was horrible. My site coordinator helped me help my mom, because we have a great relationship now. I love my mom. I didn’t really want to fight with her so much. I’m grateful to Communities In Schools for bringing me closer to my mom. Also, my grades are up every year. Freshman and Sophomore year I got C’s and D’s, Junior year I got B’s and C’s, and now I get B’s and A’s. I’m always visiting Ms. Colley just to check on my grades! And to see how I’m doing. I set goals for myself every week. And she keeps me on track.”
Both students are working at a local daycare as interns and studying Adolescent Behavior together. Autumn is considering becoming a teacher one day. Ashunti thinks of starting a daycare of her own. They intend to apply to colleges and are on track to graduate in 2020.
“Every situation is not meant for you to give up on,” Ashunti tells us. “You have to take that in, so you can walk that stage.”