Seven years later, Iannarella and her team continue to help young girls become the leaders they are meant to be, while forming lifelong friendships along the way.
“With a pandemic, of course, things changed,” Iannarella noted. “I tried to work with the girls through Zoom, and in those kinds of meetings, we would do treasure hunts and trivia games, just to keep them talking to each other.”
After a year of adapting to new ways of teaching and creating a comfortable environment for members, the Girl Talk chapter can once again hold consistent, in person meetings. But during the past year, the girls and chapter volunteers had to work together to keep alive the program’s core values.
Girl Talk is an international program whose mission is to provide a framework for teenage girls to meet, find strength, learn new skills and create a network of support by bringing awareness to monthly topics such as mental health and suicide prevention.
The program is designed for high-school girls to develop leadership abilities as they help middle-schoolers learn vital skills during their formative years. The program’s headquarters is in Georgia, and Marlton Girl Talk is currently the only chapter in South Jersey.
“It’s important to have this program, because we try to address whatever issues are going on, as far as bullying, and cyberbullying,” Iannarella explained. “I have speakers come in once a month to talk to the girls on a topic designated to that month.”
While going virtual, Iannarella had different activities planned to keep the girls engaged, but she held the high-school leaders responsible for staying connected with members and forming a relationship.
Junior Ashley Rotindo from Cherokee High School is the vice president for Girl Talk, and her job is to mentor younger girls to make sure everyone has a place. Rotindo joined the program in 2016 and remembered her leaders as friends who changed her life.
“They taught me a lot of things about myself and being healthy,” she noted. “I want people to know that they have a voice in this life, and especially during this time, everyone has been through so much. I want them to be cared for, because that’s what I got when I was younger, and I didn’t even have a pandemic to worry about.”
Rotindo tried to follow the empowerment her mentors instilled in her by constantly reaching out to different girls via text, FaceTime or other social media. If a member wanted to meet in person, Rotindo would try to find a way to socially distance herself by going for walks with the girls or having a picnic outside, so they could safely have the same connection Rotindo did with her own leaders.
Each leader connects with two or three girls, so the latter can form more intimate relationships with each other, Iannarella explained.
Freshman Alysa Kuster, from the Burlington County Institute of Technology, became a leader this year. She wanted to make sure during her leadership meetings with high-schoolers that the girls were using interactive ways to form friendships between middle-school girls during a tough time.
“I was bullied in fifth grade, I lost every single person talking to me,” Kuster recalled. “It was nice to come here, have people to talk to, and have them on my side no matter what. I want to make sure the younger girls have that, too.”
Chapter President Olivia Demmler, a senior at Cherokee, will attend Temple University in the fall as an early-childhood education major. She became part of Girl Talk in fifth grade, and as she gets ready to leave the program, Demmler has worked on creating more leadership events to demonstrate what’s expected from future leaders.
“This program knows a lot about me and what I’ve been through,” Demmler noted. “They’ve helped me through a lot of what I’ve been through, and finding that support system here, and continuing with it for this long, has meant the world to me.”
Iannarella had a couple of holiday and pizza party pop-up events this year outside of Gibson House in Marlton, though the girls can now meet inside.
Chapter Advisor AnnMarie DeMarco and volunteer Florence Lafferty helped Iannarella put together a ceremony on June 1 to celebrate graduates of the program.
Girl Talk now has 65 members registered from Camden and Burlington counties.
Since meetings are again in person, Iannarella plans to have a guest speaker in the next couple of weeks to restore a sense of normalcy, something the girls lacked during COVID.
“I just want them to have somebody to talk to when they need to,” Iannarella said. “They rely on each other a lot. If I quit tomorrow, I would feel horrible, because they depend on me. They depend on each other, and I wouldn’t know how to go on without them.”
Girl Talk Marlton meets the first three Tuesdays of the month from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Evesham Township’s Gibson House, 535 E Main St. Membership is free for girls 10 to 18 years old.
For more information or how to get involved, go to http://www.girltalkmarlton.org/home.html