Impacting Young Lives through our CATS Program


Since Spring 2017, IWES has been offering a positive youth development program to girls ages 11-19. The Creating a Truer Self (CATS) Program, funded by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, offers young girls health education and skill-building that encourages them to make responsible decisions through building self-esteem, recognizing healthy relationships, creating a positive self-image and learning the importance of nutrition and exercise. The primary purpose is to provide a safe space for discussion to promote healing from past trauma and improve their abilities to make positive decisions about their physical and emotional health. Since the program’s launch we have been able to provide this workshop to over 200 girls in 12 different schools, afterschool programs, library groups and other community-based programs. We have been awarded the grant for another year and are excited to double that number in 2019!

2019 has already been off to a great start. On January 12th we were able to implement with one of our most unique groups so far, YoungLives. YoungLives is a teen mom mentoring group based in Marrero. Four hours on a Saturday was spent laughing, learning, and processing with 12 incredible teen moms (and one who was due any day now!). Thanks to IWES staff volunteers, we were even able to provide childcare for 7 of their children. This group took the lesson of CATS to a whole new meaning. During yoga, instructor Valerie McMillian (who is a mom herself), was able to remind them of the importance of taking time to care for themselves. And during our conversations on relationships, one of our CATS co-coordinators, Gabrielle Freels (who is also a mom), guided the girls as they processed stress with their children’s fathers and the tension between feeling like an adult while still being under your parents’ guardianship. By the end we were able to help the girls identify their own strengths and places of growth so that they can be the best versions of themselves, and the best mothers for their children.

The session we held with teen moms from YoungLives is emblematic of the primary purpose of our workshop. We strive to provide young girls with the best tools to better themselves – and that starts with knowledge. It’s our belief that when participants have knowledge of what is going on with them developmentally and how trauma impacts them, they can begin to understand the connection between mental and physical health, which makes the concept of mindfulness easier to obtain. And with understanding mindfulness comes a better connection to what you are feeling and needing, which then leads to better choices. Our workshops begin with a lesson on brain development and how our brains process fear and emotion. It’s great to see a light bulb click on for participants when explaining our fight, flight, and freeze responses. During discussion time they share experiences of fear and that emotional reaction, or a time when pleasure and desire for excitement caused them to make a poor choice. But the most powerful of conversations comes after we talk about the importance of treating trauma.

Many of our participants have shared experiences of trauma and through CATS we are able to give them a safe space to open up about what happened and learn the tools to start addressing the trauma in their lives. Through our yoga and dance activities we teach them how to connect to their bodies and emotions. Our coping skills lesson helps them identify what they can do when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. The health and nutrition section talks about the importance of caring for self in the process of healing. And lastly our healthy relationships lesson teaches them what a healthy relationship looks like and how to identify when you are in an unhealthy one. At the end of the workshops, participants have shared feedback about feeling empowered to take control of their lives. They share how they now see where in their lives they could make some healthy changes.

CATS has been a program that takes the next step in mental health learning and gives young girls the practical tools they need to heal and move forward. We are excited to continue the workshop and reach even more of our New Orleans girls.

Iman ShervingtonComment