Sara Sneath told the group of third-, fourth- and fifth-grade girls what it was like being a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps.
And, she said, because her job working in security for a U.S. embassy required her to carry pepper spray, she had to get sprayed in the face with it, and then complete an obstacle course.
“Whoa,” one of the girls said.
“Did you have to use it on anyone?” another girl wanted to know.
“I never had to,” Sneath said. “Talking is a really good way of making people calm down. Even better than spraying them in the face.”
Sneath was presenting at the Strong Girls program at Kansas University’s sport and exercise psychology department. It’s a weekly after-school program for about 80 girls from Broken Arrow and Schwegler schools that encourages physical fitness and positive life skills.
Mary Fry, an associate professor in the department, is the program’s co-director. She ran a similar program at the University of Memphis for boys and girls, but chose to focus on just girls at KU. While the level of depression typically remains constant among both boys and girls early in life, the risk nearly doubles for girls after age 12, she said. And they’re usually less physically active than boys.
“There’s a lot of pressure for girls,” Fry said.
The program has grown, attracting nearly 50 leaders, including students and faculty members from many different departments at KU. Each leader serves as a mentor for one or two girls.
Honey Brookover, a graduate student in the department, had the idea to put on the veterans program. She’s an Air Force veteran of the Iraq War, where she worked with soldiers who were facing combat stress.
She thought that most of the time, when people walk by and see soldiers in KU’s ROTC program, it’s mostly men.
“They always see men,” she said. “I wanted the girls to see that we can go out and do these things, too.”
The girls also made red, white and blue friendship bracelets as a way of thanking the KU veterans enrolled in school.
Sneath, like Brookover, is back in school now at age 25. She’s getting her bachelor’s degree after enlisting at age 17. She has plans to triple major — in Spanish, journalism and sociology — and wants to work as a foreign correspondent.
Brayden Bloxsom, a fourth-grader from Broken Arrow, tried on most of the gear that Sneath brought with her, including a backpack that was nearly as big as she was. After hearing the presentations, Bloxsom said she thought she could see herself in the military someday.
“I really want to serve the people and help people,” she said.