Growing up, Latisha J. Ellis has many fond memories, but as a girl she also remembers the awkward summer she had to switch from an undershirt to a D-cup bra seemingly overnight. At the same time she watched schoolmates become mothers over the course of a summer, pushing strollers instead of handling backpacks and preparing for college or the SATs.
Those very experiences have shaped the course of Ellis’s professional life – a teacher and current literacy specialist in the Southampton School District, now earning her doctorate. It was one of the reasons the Bridgehampton native approached current Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst five years ago, when Throne-Holst was head of the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center, about creating a guidance group for teen girls facing similar, and growing, challenges.
In school fulltime, Ellis was challenged to maintain the group and maintain her studies, and the program dwindled. Shortly after Bonnie Cannon took leadership at the center two years ago, the program was revived and has found a strong base of young women to serve in Bridgehampton and beyond.
The Girls to Women workshop, nicknamed G2W, is for young women in ninth through twelfth grades and meets every Thursday at the center at 6:30 p.m. G2W aims at providing support and information for girls transitioning into womanhood in the face of social challenges at school, home and in the community.
“When I was growing up, I realized how few people there were around me that gave me the information I needed about this experience, or were insightful about growing up as a woman of African American culture,” said Ellis. “No one used language like “a community in crisis.”
At the same time, Ellis grew up like all teens on the East End and beyond, facing the challenges of peer pressure amidst raging hormones and social stigmas.
“You tend to go to your friends for answers instead of adults,” said Ellis. “And what do your friends really know about this?”
Ellis, 35, has found an honest relationship with the nine Bridgehampton three Southampton girls who take part in the program – not only hosting weekly discussions, but reaching out to those she hears are in need of advice, taking students to visit colleges and teaching them etiquette at East End restaurants.
She provides the girls with advice and counseling on the issues they are facing at school, at home and in the community at large ranging from substance abuse and underage sex to peer pressure, and discovering their sexual identity.
The key, she said, is she is relatable and positive about every situation – someone who can be trusted with the trials and tribulations of teens not comfortable with sharing their innermost questions or concerns with just any adult.
“I try to get their attention in a positive manner,” she said. “It is all about trust. And the kids can still relate to me and that is appealing.”
She said the group also gets together for outings like a recent trip to see the Harlem Globetrotters, or spending the day roller skating.
“I think it is fun for them, and for me it’s a supervised activity that they want to do,” said Ellis. “Believe me, they would rather be out on their own, so I have to come up with some really good stuff to do to get them to come on down.”
Despite that statement, Cannon noted the girls come back every Thursday for the regular session, a sign that Ellis is having an impact.
Growing up, Ellis was educated by women who said, “Baby, I walked in those shoes, so you don’t have to,” she said.
“That is what I try to employ now,” she said. “ There were things I was afraid to ask, because I didn’t want to be judged or in trouble for simply asking the question.”
Ellis has adopted a “no wrong, or right” philosophy, although still instills what are healthy and unhealthy behaviors – a discussion at the core of her talks with students. Humor coupled with understanding, is also a key to reaching teens in this day and age, she said.
“I feel like, today, we don’t have a lot of time,” Ellis admitted. “These kids have more information at their fingertips than any adult can imagine. My responsibility is letting them know exactly what they are getting into so they can make an informed decision.”
Self-esteem, she added, is at the root of many challenges teens face, whether it be because of family life, school or bullying.
“I had a bully for 10 years of my academic life,” said Ellis. “It was hard. I had no outlet, I felt powerless.”
Learning how to healthily negotiate bullying, sexual pressure and peer pressure into substance abuse are some of the more difficult trials girls, and boys, face today, said Ellis. She tries to take the pressure off, and create a safe haven for questions and concerns to be raised.
“We have fun,” she said. “Sometimes we just sit and girl talk, but I do monitor progress reports, grades and try to encourage positive conversations. I want them to know that words are important and words can hurt. We need to have respect for others, but we also need to have respect for our own bodies.”
The program’s success, said Cannon, has empowered the Center to looks towards a Boys to Men program this spring. Interviews for the male counterpart to Ellis are commencing next week.
“Everyone has a story and everyone in your life shapes the individual you are,” said Ellis. “No one has a perfect situation, ever. And when you don’t, you feel like you are standing alone. Here, I am willing to be the big sister, the cousin, the big mamma sometimes. But I will never be your nemesis.”