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Clara Barton Forum empowers young women

November 9, 2018

More than 100 young women from 17 area high schools and organizations gathered in Johnstown on Wednesday for the 27th annual Clara Barton Forum, a one-day community outreach program for women 16 to 21 years of age.

The forum educates and encourages these young women — most of whom are from Cambria and Somerset counties — in matters of self-esteem, decision-making, setting goals and problem-solving, by sharing the life experiences of positive female role models like Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, local guest speakers and adult mentors.

The Clara Barton Forum is affiliated with the Mountain Chapter of the American Red Cross, but the event is organized and supported entirely by local volunteers and donors.

“(We want the girls to know) that they’re not alone in anything they face,” said Tessa Minnick, forum chairwoman. “This program gets them in front of strong women who are in their corner.

“Sometimes they feel they can’t go to family or friends with a problem, so this gives them another person to reach out to.”

Johnstown native Kristine Irwin was the first presenter of the day. Irwin is a public speaker, author and social advocate on the topic of sexual violence and rape prevention. Her book, “Voices of Hope,” and nonprofit organization of the same name aim to educate the public about sexual violence by sharing her own story of being raped by an acquaintance, and the struggle she and her family and friends went through to heal and overcome the trauma of that event.

In addition to hearing Irwin’s story, each young woman in attendance received a signed copy of her book through donations made to the Clara Barton Forum.

“This was an amazing day,” Irwin said at the close of the forum. “I think all girls need this type of a forum. I met a lot of amazing girls and women today. A number of girls came up to me and said, ‘Me too.’ I know how prevalent (sexual violence) is, so it’s very humbling that they came to talk to me about something so personal.”

The young women also watched a self-defense demonstration given by an instructor and students from Miller’s Martial Arts in Johnstown.

After the second presentation, the group divided into small groups to have lunch and talk about their personal goals, guided by an adult mentor. Each young woman wrote down three short- or long-term goals that she wants to pursue, and over the next year, the adult mentors are going to contact each girl personally to talk about the progress on her goals or any other concerns she may want to talk about.

“Mentors are required to contact the girls at least four times during the year, but many do more,” Minnick said. “Some girls and their mentors stay in touch for years, and some of the girls (from prior forums) have come back to serve as mentors.”

The afternoon presenter was Tara Harrington, a 2001 graduate of Somerset Area High School. After graduation, Harrington earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She works as a project manager for Three Wire Systems.

Her presentation, titled “Be Yourself,” included a craft project where the participants chose various types of beads to make a bracelet, while Harrington told her personal story of self-discovery from a child with a speech impediment to a confident young woman, and the twists and turns she encountered along the way.

Harrington shared a number of life lessons with the young women, such as: find people (family, friends or others) who support you; don’t rely on social media to define who you are or to give you validation; don’t look for acceptance in social media likes or followers, but in people who support you; your life will change from what you now expect it to be, and that’s OK; try new things that allow you to grow as a person; give yourself a break, and allow yourself to make mistakes; surround yourself with good people and find positive role models (her role models are U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and artist Randy Gibson of Pittsburgh, who has transformed his home, Randyland, into a public art landmark).

She also praised Barton’s personal strength and perseverance as a professional working woman, at a time when that was uncommon. Harrington said Barton endured negativity and lack of respect from male colleagues at places where she worked before she started the American Red Cross, and she showed persistence and character in her humanitarian efforts as head of the organization.

At the end of her presentation, Harrington asked each young woman to look at her bracelet and the ones to her left and right, pointing out that each bracelet was unique, just like each of the young women in attendance.

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