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- AHA! Attitude, Harmony, Achievement
AHA! Attitude, Harmony, Achievement
AHA! serves teens and families year-round with programs aimed to create a community of adolescents who are committed to compassion, character, positive creative expression, and the celebration of diversity.
In 1999, Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., and Rendy Freedman, MFT, co-founded AHA! in response to the Columbine High School massacre. Together with a group of friends, they ran a summer program for local teens to develop relational skills through group process and the creative arts. The program received so much positive feedback from adults and youth alike, that Jennifer and Rendy decided to develop it further. Since that summer, the program has grown to serve thousands of youth by providing a range of services to teens and families year-round through after-school, summer, and in-school programs in Santa Barbara County. AHA!’s mission is to develop character, social and emotional intelligence, imagination, and social conscience in teenagers.
Santa Barbara, CA
Number of Full-Time Staff
Girls' Relationship Wisdom Group
Latina/Hispanic teenage girls
About the Program
For the SEL Challenge, AHA! focused on the Girls’ Relationship Wisdom Group, also known as Girls’ Group. Isis Castañeda, Senior Facilitator, described the youth who attend AHA! programs as “eager to feel connection, and hesitant to be vulnerable.” She explained how their recruitment is focused on serving a group of youth that is representative of the full socio-economic spectrum. She commented:
Recently, we’ve been more heavily weighted with the Latino and lower socioeconomic groups because there is such a deep need, so we are focusing on increasing our numbers of middle and upper-income Caucasian teens. Not only do we want to have this diversity in our program, but it’s because these social and emotional skills, this connection, this group process is important for everyone. If teens can really see the perspective of everyone, they will be more understanding. It will benefit them as adults as well as helping them with the struggles and angst they experience now.
For 100 minutes every Monday, participants in Girls’ Group become aware and empowered agents of their own lives. At AHA!, the work the youth are engaged in focuses on self-exploration and development of relationship skills.
The Girls’ Group meets every Monday from October through June. Staff members describe the program year using a relationship metaphor. The first several weeks of the program are the beginning parts of a relationship. Participants are new to one another, polite and excited, but a bit reserved. By the middle of the program year, participants feel much more comfortable with one another, and conflicts arise out of familiarity. Staff use this as an opportunity to check in with the participants around goals and aspirations for the group. Finally, the end of the program year is a sentimental time for the participants as they prepare to end this dynamic relationship and take the lessons learned into other areas of life.
Orientation - Once the youth have been selected for the program, they attend an orientation on the Saturday before the program starts. The orientation accommodates all after-school group participants—about 50 to 75 youth—and their families. The day serves as an opportunity to get to know the youth and to introduce them to the AHA! style, which is about “playfulness and vulnerability and authenticity.”
Group Culture - Girls’ Group begins immediately on the Monday following the Saturday orientation. The first few weeks consist of setting the culture and the norms between the 15 to 17 young women and the four adult facilitators. The girls develop a list of qualities and needs that will create the best group culture.
Become Your Best Self - The Girls’ Group uses a workbook curriculum from the Become Your Best Self series developed by Jennifer Freed and Amanda Waldman Lake. Topics in the workbook include Defining Values, My Body, Sexism, Unmet Needs, Protection, My First Time or Next Time, Sexual Wounding, Sexual Healing, Sexual Bill of Rights, Virginity, Affection, and Sexual Wisdom.
Intimacy in the Middle - Just about halfway through the sessions, it is typical for the group to begin to experience a “storming” period.
Saying Goodbye - The end of the program is an important learning experience for the girls as well. For many of the young women who attend the Girls’ Group, the relationships they’ve established through the group are deeper (and possibly longer) than any relationships they’ve previously had. AHA! staff are careful to help youth process what the end of the program means and what they’ve learned that they can apply to future relationships.
About the Staff
What sets AHA! apart from other nonprofits is its leadership model. Jennifer Freed and Rendy Freeman are co-founders and co-directors of the organization. As they depend on each other to co-facilitate groups, staff at AHA! form deep interpersonal relationships. In order to meet the dynamic social and emotional needs of the participants in their programs, AHA! only selects the most qualified staff to work with youth. More than half of all staff hold master’s degrees in psychology, and several are therapists working toward licensure. The staff-to-youth ratio is one staff per every six youth. Most of the time there are four or five adults leading a group together.
AHA! also provides its staff with opportunities to work with outside experts to increase skills. Most of the staff receive an international certification in emotional intelligence and/or are trainers in restorative approaches. They have quarterly training and staff retreats, which focus on continuing social and emotional learning training. Continuing education between formal trainings also occurs in the form of book recommendations and relevant scholarly studies. Finally, there are weekly supervision meetings that serve as another forum for continued social and emotional learning for staff.
Tips and Tools from Staff
To read more about how AHA! implements social and emotional learning, download their case narrative here.