The “Wonder Years” can be far less than wonderful for most middle school girls navigating the rapid changes in their lives. Haley Kilpatrick found herself becoming quite seasick on her own voyage through those choppy waters growing up in Albany, GA. Determined not to see the same storms toss about her younger sister, Haley started a mentoring program at her school when she was only 15 years old, which has become Girl Talk — a national foundation devoted to helping young girls find a new perspective and embrace their authentic selves. Haley’s book The Drama Years draws on the resources of the Girls Talk foundation to provide invaluable information to girls and their parents. We’re thrilled to welcome her today as our FACE of Atlanta.

Amazing that you launched the Girl Talk organization when you were just a teen yourself. How did you get it started?

Girl Talk was started with the sole intention of helping my sister and her friends get through middle school, to avoid some of the pitfalls that I experienced. I shared the idea with my mom at our local IHOP and she immediately saw Girl Talk’s potential, encouraging me to make that vision a reality. I scheduled a meeting with my principal and went in with a poster board that served as a visual for what I wanted to do at our school. With his blessing, Girl Talk started just a few weeks later, and 80% of our middle school girls showed up at the first meeting. In that moment, I realized just how much girls needed support and guidance. Faculty and staff started noticing a positive difference and our local media shared the concept with our community. By 2004, there were 8 Girl Talk programs around southwest Georgia and north Florida.

I moved to Atlanta to go to college in 2004 and just a few months later in December of 2004, my middle school experience/Girl Talk story was featured in CosmoGirl magazine. Over winter break hundreds of letters arrived at our home from girls wanting to bring Girl Talk to their schools. That next semester I invested my college savings into Girl Talk. I worked tirelessly to be sure that it was available to any high school girl who wanted to bring the program to her school. I found a way to make it work — to grow Girl Talk and develop curricula, to keep a job and make ends meet, and finish college in just under four years.

Where have you seen the greatest growth and development of the program since its inception?

We’ve witnessed the greatest growth within our program within our high school girls who serve as “Girl Talk Leaders”. Our average Chapter size starts with 1 or 2 high school girls, and usually 20-25 middle school girls. An unintended (but incredible) result, has been the number of middle school girls who go on to become Girl Talk Leaders in high school. Our Girl Talk Leaders learn through teaching their younger peers, and are shining lights  ALL girls are at risk without the proper support and mentors.

What changes have you seen in your own approach to the issues at hand, as you have transitioned from a teenager with a goal into a woman on a mission?

So much personal growth has occurred over the past 11 years, and I feel like the evolution is constant. The more time I spend around middle and high school girls, the more I realize that they are truly the experts in how to best navigate their unchartered, digital world. Now that the foundation for Girl Talk has been poured, my mission is development focused. Over 11 million middle school girls in the United States alone are in need of a mentor and/or supplemental mentoring program like Girl Talk. I know our model works. My hope is that today’s middle school girls will grow up to be servant leaders, modeling and encouraging that behavior throughout their lives.

How can our readers get involved with your program, and where is your greatest need?

The three T’s keep us going — your Time, Talent, and Treasure are the greatest ways to fill our needs. Everything about how to “Start a Chapter” in your community, donating, and volunteering is on our website (www.mygirltalk.org).

Inquiring moms want to know: Why is this whole tween thing so much more challenging than ever?

Digital drama, unrealistic expectations, and the pressure to be perfect! I have learned that the three main pressures girls feel today are bullying (physical, emotional, and cyber bullying); body image and how others perceive them; and brand consciousness (who has what and how that affects their life). We know bullying is an epidemic and digital drama is hard to escape. Girls are bullying each other through texts, pictures, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the list goes on.

As for girls who watch reality television, it is no wonder they accept more drama in their lives and have a skewed definition of friendship. These girls have grown up watching women be paid to tear each other down. That kind of television doesn’t make it easier to raise kind, confident girls

A girl’s body image is so wrapped up in her self-esteem. One of the most shocking discoveries I’ve learned is that tween girls don’t understand self-esteem. They define it as how others see them instead of how they see themselves. Adults need to model good behavior — whether you think they are watching you or not, I promise you they are.

How do you think we can give girls (and guys) the tools to navigate their tech-saturated environment?

There are three things you can incorporate into their lives to help with the three main challenges they face — an anchor activity, a helping hand, and an adopted older sister. Each of these is invaluable, but when they’re used in tandem, they can be transformative and help keep girls’ minds off the drama and serve a source of confidence and validation.

  • Anchor Activity: Something she actively enjoys, that keeps her engaged, and seems to fulfill her creatively, intellectually, socially — a sport, a club, an activity, hobby, lessons, etc.
  • Helping Hand: A chance to be a part of something larger than herself, to instill gratitude for what she has, and allow her to see the reality of others’ lives.
  • Adopted Older Sister: A positive role model to advise her on how to handle whatever she’s going through, someone who’s just been in her shoes and can advise her on how to walk in them.

When each of these is a part of her life, she has an outlet to keep her mind off the ups and downs of middle school; she has an opportunity to be of service, to give her perspective about what’s really drama and what’s not; and she has someone to decipher and decode her experiences, to let her know that she’s not alone.

Who have been your biggest inspirations and greatest mentors? What advice have your received that stays with you?

My faith, family and friends. They know who they are. I am a wisdom seeker by nature, and a lot of advice I’ve taken to  heart. There is no greater gift you can give someone than unconditionally loving them, especially at their worst. It is certainly true you realize who your true friends are in difficult times. Be eternally grateful for friends, family and colleagues who love like this, and commit to being this for others.

“Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.” Hebrews 11:1

The days are long, but the years are short! Make it happen.

What are your local favorites here —shops, restaurants, attractions, landmarks, whatever?

  • For shopping: Peridot, Boxwoods ,Sandpiper, The Honeybee
  • Restaurants (All are gluten-free friendly!): Antica Posta, R. Thomas, South City Kitchen, El Azteca, Henri’s, Roasters, Tuk-Tuk
  • Attractions: The Fox Theatre, Scott’s Antique Market, Piedmont Park , Woodruff Arts Center, and Atlanta Botanical Garden

Do you have any secret talents?

I have a passion for interior design. In my spare time, I decorate my friends’ homes and apartments. I have noticed that a lot of nonprofits work in donated or inexpensive offices, most of them lacking color and design. I’d love to see businesses, retailers, and manufacturers connect with local interior designers to make nonprofit spaces feel as inspiring as the work they do!

What foods could you just survive on for the rest of your life?

Host an imaginary cocktail party with a guest list of anyone, living or dead, real or fictitious. Who’s invited?

Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO), John Mackey & Renee Lawson Hardy (Whole Foods Co-Founders), Wendy Kopp (Founder of Teach for America), Bill & Melinda Gates, Abraham Lincoln, Oprah, Condoleezza Rice, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Jimmy Fallon, and Zach Morris from Saved By The Bell.

What is sitting on your bedside table right now?

  • Devotion book (Jesus Calling)
  • Magazines – Elle Décor,
  • Picture of my husband and me on our wedding day
  • iPad (for pinning on Pinterest!)

Other than God, friends or family, name three things you cannot live without.

  • Law & Order SVU
  • Pinterest
  • Thank you notes

Haley, cheers to you and to the work you’re doing to make sure the next generation marches forward with joyful confidence.  Learn more about Girl Talk here: mygirltalk.org.

Thank you once again to Cat Maxwell for beautiful photographs. See more of Cat’s work here: catmaxphotography.com.