With assistance from Catholic Health Initiatives, Mercy Medical Center–Des Moines implemented “Girl Power,” an after-school program that builds confidence in middle-school girls and educates them on the characteristics of a healthy relationship and how to manage bullying and abuse. The program is an innovative approach to violence prevention.

The Iowa-based medical center tapped the Chrysalis Foundation, a community organization focused on empowering women in the Des Moines area, to run Girl Power within its already active after-school programs. Girl Power is featured in five schools in Polk County, serving more than 100 girls each year. Chrysalis runs after-school programs for young girls in 30 schools, reaching more than 800.

Girl Power has received backing for the program from CHI’s Mission and Ministry Fund. Mercy Medical Center–Des Moines supplies additional support, as do local corporations. Part of CHI’s goal, including its outreach to other hospitals nationwide, is to focus on violence prevention, says Jacquie Easley, director of community and diversity services at Mercy Medical–Des Moines.

The communities that receive CHI assistance, however, are given responsibility to address programming specific to their own areas, she says. The idea for Girl Power originated in focus groups with local leaders and even children from a local school. 

The Chrysalis Foundation was a logical choice to manage Girl Power. “Mercy recognized [that] the easiest way we’re going to eliminate much of the front-end burden of setting up the program is [by] making it a vital part of a program currently working very well — being the after-school program,” says Brooke Findley, director of community initiatives and investments at the foundation.

“We have many programs [related to] promoting healthy behavior, [including] anti-obesity programs in schools … but this would be our only program with a focus on resiliency [and] self-esteem,” says Easley, adding that building self-esteem early on is a way to help build a positive health demeanor later in a child’s life.

The Girl Power program consists of four, 90-minute sessions during the school year, taught by high school peer mentors. The foundation recruits and pays a dozen or so high school students every year, who attend four full-day training sessions. Findley says the sessions prepare the high school girls to handle questions from the middle-school kids on healthy relationships, as well as instruct them how to teach the curriculum.

“We treat it like a job. We do a formal interview,” Findley says. “I tell them, 'Put your capes away.' You’re not going to swoop in and save anybody; rather, in 10 years when [the middle-school girls] find themselves seeking a romantic relationship and partner choice, are they going to have the tools to be able to communicate appropriately, to understand their own value and to be able to make decisions that are healthy?”

Girl Power is open to any girl enrolled in the after-school programs, but the majority of girls are minorities or receiving free or reduced-price lunches. “We don’t want it to be the ‘girls with problems group,’” Findley says.

Over nine years, the program has fleshed out its approach to violence prevention, developing its strategy to build self-esteem and life skills, Findley says. The program began by assessing more traditional models, such as preventing relationship abuse or gang interdiction.

“I think if you tell these kids that they’re in a program for violence prevention, they’d be in disbelief,” Easley says. “They believe they’re in a program to learn about how to be successful and how to be confident, and that’s good. That’s the exact goal.”

For more on what hospitals are doing to reduce violence in their communities, visit the American Hospital Association’s Hospitals Against Violence website