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Jewish World Review May 26, 1999 /11 Sivan, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Best friend these girls ever had

(JWR) ---- (
THE SCENE WAS THE KENNEDY CENTER for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The music was "Straighten Up and Fly Right" by Nat King Cole. The dancers were scores of school girls ranging in age from 9 to 18. The audience members were the parents, friends and supporters of a private program aimed at helping young girls postpone sex and reject drugs and alcohol.

So many things about this event -- the annual recognition ceremony for the abstinence program Best Friends -- seem anachronistic. Jazz? For girls of the hip hop and rap era? Dance steps that owe more to Agnes De Mille and Jerome Robbins than to Michael Jackson? Inner-city girls in long gowns? It's all part of the genius of Elayne Bennett, the program's founder. While others lamented the epidemic of illegitimacy that blighted the lives of so many inner-city kids (and millions of suburban kids as well), Bennett was able to conceive of a program that would teach traditional values and yet still manage to be hip and cool. Best Friends also does something else: It gives these girls their femininity back.

The Best Friends formula of discussion groups, individual mentoring, physical fitness, dance and cultural enrichment was offered at first to several private girls schools in the Washington, D.C., area. Though they were hardly insulated from the problems of drugs, sex and alcohol, they turned Bennett down. It took a brave principal in a mostly black middle school in Washington to say yes. And so, Best Friends was launched.

It now boasts programs in 25 cities serving 4,000 girls. An independent study conducted in 1995 found that 1 percent of Best Friends participants got pregnant before graduating from high school, compared with 26 percent of their peers, and only 5 percent of Best Friends girls had lost their virginity by 10th grade, compared with 63 percent of their peers.

Anyone can suggest teaching young girls to be abstinent. (Though in 1987, when Bennett first developed the program, the conventional wisdom had it that "preaching" abstinence was useless. "They're going to do it anyway" was the view of most "experts.") It's quite another thing to conceive of a program that will fill the empty places in the lives of young girls and imbue them with a sense of hope and possibility. It's a safe bet that the vast majority of the girls who attended the Best Friends ceremony at the Kennedy Center Opera House had never before set foot in the place, though they live only a mile or two away.

Best Friends is preachy. But it is also supportive, hard-headed, loving and fun. Here's a little secret that the '60s generation obscured for a very long time: Kids do not mind being preached at -- provided they think you have real wisdom to impart.

Through its program of peer counseling and adult mentoring, Best Friends helps youngsters understand the risks of drugs, sex and alcohol, and offers practical advice about domestic abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and other issues the girls face every day. The Best Friends handbook even provides samples of typical "lines" boys use to get their girlfriends to agree to sex.

Best Friends also introduces girls to the wider world beyond their own families and neighborhoods. They hear from successful black women like Alma Powell (also a board member of Best Friends) and broadcasters Lark McCarthy and Barbara Harrison, who have shared their life stories with the girls.

And the young women who achieve are treated like celebrities. At one point during the May 18 recognition ceremony, the curtain parted to reveal 27 Best Friends graduates who are now attending college. They were posed on a riser. Each was attired in a floor-length evening gown. With their hair piled high, and their long gloves, and the spotlights illuminating their heads like halos, they looked like Miss America contestants. And they received such a rousing cheer from the younger girls and parents in the audience that the Kennedy Center must have rocked on its foundations.

For making heroines of college girls, Elayne Bennett is herself a heroine.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate