When Toronto police officer Jennifer Dekezel received a phone call about a bullying incident over a decade ago, she had no idea that moment would inspire a program that would teach young girls how to love themselves.
Eleven years ago, Dekezel was dispatched to a school in her division to deal with the incident. While there, the principal noticed she had a connection with the four girls involved. A week later, she asked her to come back to meet with them again, and again.
Today, Dekezel is a mentor to over 35 girls as part of a program she calls Girlz Will Be Girlz, born out of that interaction. The program includes girls ranging from primary school age to their 20s.
“What’s so awesome is watching them at their prom or graduation or being able to see them flourish in life.”
‘Almost like a best friend’
There weren’t a lot of female police officers when she was growing up, she says — something many of the girls who she mentors aren’t used to seeing either — especially the ones from countries where officers are mostly male.
“So when they come here, we’ve introduced them to that, which has been eye-opening to them and empowering for them.”
Kendra Michel, now 18, first joined the group when she was 10. But it was in high school when she really realized how important the program was for her, being able to text or call Dekezel when she found herself having a hard time.
“Growing up, you feel sometimes people just don’t understand what you’re going through, especially your parents,” she said.
“But I feel like her being there she was almost like a best friend, or an auntie, somebody that was close enough to me to help me that I could trust.”
It’s also helped her think of police officers in a more positive light, something Dekezel says is another important part of the program: to “humanize” the badge.
“When these young girls have interacted with police in the past, it may not be for a good situation — maybe not for themselves, but a lot of the times when girls have seen police in their areas, it may not be for good things.”
‘I used to be really shy’
“It’s not just about if they’ve been bullied. They could be the bully. And another thing I teach when it comes to bullying is to watch out for their fellow peers and to recognize if somebody is getting bullied.”
The girls meet with Dekezel in groups of four once a week, just like that first interaction years ago. Keeping the size of the groups small, she says, means she can have more meaningful conversations with them and foster a stronger connection.
It’s that kind of closeness that Maeve Eggen-Gill, 11, says has helped her come out of her shell — that and all the fun large-group events, including spa days, trips to Wasaga beach, laser tag and rollerskating.
“Before I started I used to be really shy and I wouldn’t really talk to people a lot,” she said. “It’s changed my life a lot.
“When I’m upset I can just talk to her… Jenny’s one of my best friends.”
The program has a personal significance for Dekezel, who doesn’t have any children of her own but always wanted to give back.
“I’m adopted and my parents always taught me that just because I wasn’t their blood relation, they loved me unconditionally,” she said.
“I know what its like to be a young girl and struggling through different issues like peer pressure, bullying, and I want to make sure that I give back to those children so that they can open their hearts and minds, dream big and be the best they can be.”