CHAMPAIGN — At first glance, the group of young women gathered over pizza and sodas seem to be simply friends, laughing and talking about their lives.
But they're also doing things like taking quizzes to evaluate how their friends treat them, playing charades as a way of learning about body language and switching their cell phones as a way of understanding how text messages can be misconstrued.
Uniquely Me is a group of 20 to 30 female students who are learning about issues like self-esteem and relationships.
The group, a collaboration between Operation Hope and the Girl Scouts of Central Illinois, has the same group of girls together once a month at Central to eat lunch and talk.
The same group of girls have been attending for two years, said Meghan Grant, who works for Operation Hope, which helps at-risk high schoolers get through high school and prepare for college and their careers.
They're girls who might not necessarily be friends, Grant said, but the group has brought them together
Grant works with Rhonda Sykes, membership specialist with the Girl Scouts, to run the group.
Sykes works with similar groups at Jefferson and Franklin middle schools in Champaign, Urbana Middle School and J.W Eater Junior High School in Rantoul.
She combines material from the Girl Scouts' Uniquely Me program as well as other leadership material for young women, she said.
For example, at their Tuesday lunch at Central, the participating women filled out a questionnaire about how their friends treat them, which Sykes followed by talking about how it's important to surround yourself with encouraging, supportive people.
She said they could also use that list of positive and not-so-positive attributes in a friend to evaluate themselves.
Grant used some examples from her life, explaining how she has to be careful not to be sarcastic around sensitive friends, and encouraged the participants to look at their friends and interactions with others.
"Only you can control who you have in your life and who you have out of your life," she said.
Then, a game of body-language charades — along with a reminder for the participants to be aware of the vibe they're giving off — and on to a game of text-message telephone.
The participants had 45 seconds to compose a text message about a fictional situation, seeing a friend's boyfriend with another girl.
Then, they slid their phones to the person next to them, face down. The reader had five seconds to read it, then tried to tell Sykes what the message said.
Sykes used the activity to show how messages can be misunderstood, based on tone and interpretation, and that any text you send can be forwarded.
She advised them not to criticize a friend, break up with someone or send a questionable joke via text.
Grant encouraged the women to deal with conflicts in person or on the phone, rather than trying to text about them.
Grant said later that conflict resolution is an important part of the Central Uniquely Me, and the goal is to help those involved deal with conflicts before they get out of hand. It also gives them an outlet, to be goofy and talk about their own lives.
Mariah Davis, a sophomore, said she'd like the group to meet more and thinks it's especially helpful for those entering high school.
"It's a really good, supportive group, and I like it," Davis said.
She started as a freshman and said she made friends with classmates she'd never talked to before.
"In here, these are my friends," Davis said.
Sophomore Ranija Turner said the group helped her as a freshman with self-esteem, teaching her to see herself the way she wanted others to see her.
She said she likes the element of trust within the group — anything they say isn't repeated, and they're instructed not to judge one another.
"It helped me grow as a person," Turner said.