FARMINGTON — A group of girls in a unique reading club at Mt. Blue Middle School in Farmington got a gift and message Tuesday morning about reaching for their dreams from Ashley Underwood.

Underwood, 26, a recent “Survivor” contestant, Miss Maine USA pageant winner and basketball star who grew up in Benton, dropped off 50 journals with pink hearts and colorful designs for the students in grades seven and eight.

Some of the girls greeted her for a brief visit, sharing stories about their favorite books and their group known as Teen Voices, the club that pairs them with college mentors to discuss books that promote strong female characters and address social issues that affect their lives.

Underwood told them that she belonged to a book club in middle school when she started keeping a diary, something that still helps her every day to get through tough times and strive to be successful.

“A journal can be so important in making clear your goals and your dreams because you can look back on it and say, ‘Hey, I accomplished all of these great things,'” she said, just before handing out the journals.

Destiny Burnell, 14, got the first journal and flipped through the blank, white pages between the glossy covers, showing it off to the other girls as they stood in a circle waiting for the tiny lockable treasure.

“Look at the cute key,” she said, holding it up for everyone to see.

The girls brightened up and smiled when talking about reading with Underwood, who told stories about her reading club days at Lawrence Junior High School, before she went on to graduate from Cony High School in Augusta and the University of Maine with a nursing degree.

When Underwood mentioned reading the “Anne of Green Gables” series in eighth grade, some of the girls jumped and shouted how they love the books and movies. She responded by encouraging them to keep reading about things they love and dream about.

The journals were donated by Peter Pauper Press Inc. after Underwood approached them with an idea about sharing her diary experiences with young girls — especially with those in middle school, because that’s when her journals really made a difference, she said.

“They were important to me then and they still are,” she told the girls Tuesday.

Each year there are about 20 girls in Teen Voices who meet once a month with women studying at University of Maine at Farmington, according to Pauline Rodrigue, who helps organize the club as the volunteer coordinator for Mt. Blue Regional School District 9.

Having visits with students on the campus in Farmington helps girls in the program grow in many ways, from experiencing the college atmosphere to finding someone who’s been through the tough mid-teen years, Rodrigue said.

They read seven books for the club each year, with titles that range from coming-of-age classics such as “Little Women” to books about contemporary social themes such as cyber-bullying, she said.

The girls also can participate in reading clubs in other grades, with the district offering Girls Talk for younger girls and Chicklet for students at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, she said.

Underwood still lives in Benton, while continuing to work in modeling and entertainment jobs nationwide, and plans to hand out more diaries to other girls in Maine schools in the future.

After the girls went to class, Underwood praised Rodrigue and the clubs for teaching girls to love reading while building their personal identity.

“If you’re helping them to read and learn about themselves, they’re going to make it far,” she said.

David Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]

 


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