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Jewish World Review / June 9, 1998 /15 Sivan, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

These girls say no to sex, yes to excellence

IT'S COOL. That's what I've failed to convey adequately in previous articles about the phenomenon called Best Friends.

To get the feel for just how hip and fun this group is, you have to picture staid Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. -- home of the prim Daughters of the American Revolution. This is the site from which Marian Anderson, the great black contralto, was famously excluded by the DAR in 1939, prompting Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the organization and arrange for Anderson to hold her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The DAR has of course dramatically changed since then, but the Hall itself continues to look and feel stiff and formal.

No caption necessary
At least, it feels that way empty. Enter several hundred participants in the Best Friends program, and you've got pulsing, vibrating, get-up-and-dance energy.

At the close of every school year, Best Friends, an abstinence program for young girls founded and run by Elayne Bennett, holds its "Recognition Ceremony." It's a chance for the girls to show off what they've learned and reconfirm what they stand for, and for outsiders to get a peek at the good it is always possible to do in this world.

These girls are not supposed to be so happy and upbeat about their lives. Read the news stories about the schools they attend and the neighborhoods they live in, and you will despair.

Bennett's great insight, over 11 years ago, was that while many people deplored sexual promiscuity, drugs and violence among the young, no one was teaching them how to avoid these things. The enlightened attitude of "experts" was that teenage sexual activity was as natural and inescapable as chicken pox (and about as benign). Members of the establishment responded by handing out condoms and covering their eyes. The Best Friends approach is a little different.

You should see these girls, ages 9 through 18, in their blue and pink T-shirts and baseball caps, rocking to the beat of the Best Friends theme song and shouting "NO!" to the question "What do you say to sex and drugs?" Through Best Friends, they've learned that boyfriends who demand sex as the price of sticking around are not worth having and that a girl who makes good decisions has the power to become a dignified young lady.

They are also learning to respect the power of hard work, study and the pursuit of excellence. Thanks to an original donation by Bill Bennett (Elayne's husband) and subsequent generosity by many others, Best Friends now has a thriving college scholarship program. As each scholarship recipient was introduced at Constitution Hall, the girls went wild -- particularly for the young lady who had achieved a 4.0 grade point average. You would have thought they were cheering a sports star.

Each participant in the Best Friends program gets at least 110 hours a year of guidance (from adult mentors), health and fitness information, dance classes and choral singing. It's a continuing challenge for the Best Friends directors to find music with acceptable lyrics for the girls to sing and dance to. For that reason, but also because so many of the girls are black, Best Friends has lately introduced classical jazz -- a musical form as unknown to them as Baroque. They know rap, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and hip hop, but the rich American tradition of jazz -- one of the great fusions of African and Western traditions -- is new to them.

So it sends a bit of a thrill down the spine to watch these girls swing to "Blue Skies" and "Accentuate the Positive." Those are fitting theme songs for a program that achieves such spectacular results. The pregnancy rate among Best Friends girls is 1.1 percent. For comparable girls in the District of Columbia public schools, the rate is 26 percent.

As Maria Bennett, a ninth-grader from Washington, D.C., and one of the essay-contest award winners put it, "As I keep the Best Friends message of self-respect, self-restraint and doing the right thing in the forefront of my mind, I know I will accomplish my goals and become the woman I aspire to be." Because of this program, we can have the same confidence for thousands of girls around the nation.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.