By KRISTINA HOUSER
The consensus was 13 years old.
This shocking conversation led Pam Ingram, founder and director of Granny’s House, a children’s organization located in public housing units near Douglass Park, to host a weekend seminar for young girls in Columbia.
The purpose of the weekend was to encourage abstinence and a healthy view of marriage and family. That seminar spawned a two-semester long program that has been a part of Granny’s House since 2001.
“We just wanted to do something to put a different lifestyle on the table for them,” Ingram said. “We wanted them to see there is another way to live.”
The Princess Academy is open to fifth- through seventh-grade girls. Typically, about 10 girls participate in the academy each year.
It originally centered on five tenets: honor, strength, courage, purity and dignity. It has now expanded to include other topics and Bible studies, but those fundamental principles are still emphasized.
Storm McLaurin, 11, has been a part of the Princess Academy for nearly three semesters. She said a lot of what they learn is about how God can transform lives.
“When you’re not with God, it’s like you have old clothes on,” she said. “When you are with God, you put your new self on. You’re changed.”
Angie Azzanni, program coordinator at Granny’s House, leads the Princess Academy’s weekly meetings.
Azzanni uses several materials to make the topics relevant to the preteen girls. During the meetings, the girls watch other videos to help them understand the topic they are learning. They listen to rap songs written about Bible stories. An argument between Kanye West and 50 cent is used as an example of withholding forgiveness. They often take time to make crafts or do other hands on activities, she said.
“We really want the kids to understand it’s not just memorizing information, it’s not just about getting it and keeping it to yourself,” Azzanni said. “It’s about now going and living it out.”
Starr, Storm’s older sister, graduated from the Princess Academy last year. Her favorite thing to learn was about a woman who served Jesus by washing his feet. She said the lessons about God she learned from the academy have helped her become a nicer person outside of Granny’s House.
“Sometimes people at lunch don’t have any money and they’re starving,” she said. “Sometimes I just share my lunch with some people. It’s like the fish and the bread.”
The girls in the program participate in community service projects to live out what they have learned. Last year the girls planted flowers in the neighborhood and picked up trash.
Kia Kemp, 13, graduated from the academy last year. She said that through community projects, she has learned the value of service.
“We learn how to help others, not just ourselves,” she said.
Kia now dreams of becoming a pediatrician someday.
Storm said the things she learns in the group have helped her live out her faith, even when it’s tough.
“The outside is very different than the inside,” she said. “Here we’re learning about God and everything, but once we get outside it changes. There are people who believe in God, but they don’t show that they do. They are saying all this stuff and doing all these bad things and you think, ‘I want to do that, too.’ It’s hard.”
Ingram recognizes that the girls must fight against the negative influences they face every day. She believes the academy helps the girls not only by teaching them about their faith but also creating an atmosphere in which they can support one another and hold each other accountable.
“In life there’s a lot of pressure to be, to do, to try, to experiment,” Ingram said. “And if you have this little enclave of girls that think the same way and believe the same things, they can encourage each other in that way.”
The girls who complete the Princess Academy participate in a graduation ceremony at the conclusion of the year, held at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at MU. Each girl has an opportunity to share something she have learned from the Academy.
Ingram said she hopes the girls walk away understanding their true value.
“The actual definition in the dictionary says that a princess is a daughter of royalty,” Ingram said. “And that’s who they are. Their father is God.”