MAHOPAC, N.Y.— When Alissa Copeland and Abby Azadian were sophomores at Mahopac High, they heard someone in the hallway make a crude remark about women, wondering out loud, “Who treats women with respect?”

The remark bothered the girls so much that they decided to do something about it.

“We started talking about it and realized there was no club or anything in the high school that talked about women’s issues,” Azadian said. “We wanted to change that.”

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The two young women, who are now seniors, decided they wanted to find a way to help empower teens—especially girls—and give them a voice to vent their emotions and concerns in a safe environment. Together, they formed STAGE (Student Teacher Association for Gender Equality). Azadian is president; Copeland serves as vice president.

To get the club off the ground, the two girls approached John Augusta, who, at the time, was director of student athletics and activities and he laid out the steps they would need to take.

The girls went before the Board of Education last month to get STAGE formally recognized as an official school organization, which was granted.

“Mr. Augusta absolutely loved the ideas we were coming up with,” Copeland told the board during their presentation. “At first, we were very ambitious with a lot of goals but there is only so much you can do. We were honing in on what you can really achieve. [Augusta] told us the steps we would need to formalize this club and now two years later here we are.”

Part of the startup process was to find a faculty advisor for the club. The girls reached out to Valerie Nierman, the high school health teacher.

“We chose Mrs. Nierman, who we had as a health teacher our sophomore year,” Copeland said. “She was totally on board with all the ideas we were coming up with. From there, we got the ball rolling so we could start organizing events for our junior year.”

Azadian said one of their biggest goals that first year was to inform and empower their members and the community by hosting a sexual-assault forum.

“We wanted to inform them what [sexual assault] is and what to do in the event of sexual assault,” she said. “We wanted to inform them about body image and self-esteem and what to do to boost it. [Talk about] how body image is influenced by the media, which is a huge problem for adolescent girls.”

Azadian and Copeland realized that these weren’t issues just for high school students, but impacted girls in middle school. They got the idea for STAGE to set up a mentoring program for seventh graders.

“During our first year, we did a whole unit on body image and the more we got talking we discovered our self-esteem dropped in middle school,” Azadian said. “We got in contact with [middle school Principal Vince DiGrandi] and he loved the idea to help middle school girls. So far we have eight mentors.”

Copeland said they knew they couldn’t just jump right into mentoring. Some training was necessary.

“We had to know what we were getting into…perhaps certain kids were going to really open up to us and talk about sensitive issues in their lives and we had to be prepared to respond and provide them with appropriate resources,” she told the board. “We went through three months of mentor training and had to focus. We have gotten a great reception from the girls. Overall, it has been very positive and we will use the feedback for next year’s mentoring.”

Copeland added that the club looks for innovative ways to drive its empowerment message home.

“Last year we organized a Go Red for Women Day through the American Heart Association,” she said. “Heart disease is the main killer of women in the United States. As a club looking to empower women, we figured that was something that we could achieve. We had donation boxes throughout the school. And everyone wore red on a certain day to show support.”

STAGE club is different in the way it’s run than most student clubs throughout the district, the girls said. Azadian said the meetings are “unique.”

“It’s student-led; it’s very much our own creation,” she explained. “We include interactive activities. {For example], if it’s about self-esteem, we will include an activity that boosts self-esteem. It’s very much relatable to the members. We are the same age and go to the same school and experience the same thing.

“We had one member last year who told us people touch him inappropriately in the hallways and we were really sad to hear that,” she added, “but we’re glad he felt open and comfortable enough that he could share that information with us and we feel that is what makes this club so unique.”

Copeland noted that the key to the club’s success was that they’ve created a safe environment for their members where they can come and talk and support each other without judgment.

“We are all open-minded to one another’s ideas,” she said. “We are motivated to empower each other. Sometimes we will have a meeting dedicated to a discussion on just one topic and we don’t know where it will take us. We would not have been able to do that if we had not set out to create a safe environment.”

Nierman had high praise for Azadian and Copeland and the work they put into the new organization.

“Valerie and Abby have impacted Mahopac High School beyond what we can really understand. I give them tons of credit,” she said. “Everything that has happened—from the club meetings to the launching of a mentoring program—is because of what they have done. I guess for me, as a health teacher, when I look at all of the things the club has accomplished and all the things they hope to do—this is prevention at its finest. It’s teenagers empowering themselves and empowering each other—to feel good, to have a body image that doesn’t make them want to diet to the extreme; to care enough about themselves not to care about the latest diet pill on the market. To say, ‘I’m not into that because I feel strong enough about myself and who I am.’”

School Board President Brian Mahoney said he was more than happy to formally recognize STAGE.

“Your hard work and dedication show, especially for the young women in the middle school. I love that program,” he told Azadian and Copeland. “I want to congratulate you on your hard work.”