Entering middle school, as any prepubescent male or female will tell you, can be daunting.
In addition to locker codes and complicated class schedules comes hormones, braces and all kinds of new social mores.
As a social worker with Montgomery County Family Services — and the mother of twin, 13-year-old girls — Paula Singer is well aware of this rough terrain.
"Particularly for girls, they can come out of elementary school feeling pretty good about themselves — they've developed interests, and they get a lot of positive feedback," she said. "But then they enter middle school, where quickly they realize that the rules of the game have changed. Now, it's really more about what you look like, your body type, the clothes you wear and the group you belong to."
This is when girls become particularly vulnerable to eating disorders, bullying and social competitiveness, continued Singer, who described such behaviors as "insecurities manifesting themselves."
Through her position with family services, Singer, 53, hopes to prevent teens — and, in particular, girls — from falling into such negative patterns; she runs programs like anti-bullying workshops and all-girls leadership clubs in public and private schools across the district.
And, for the second year in a row, Singer will co-lead a five-day summer camp called "Movin' Up" for girls on the cusp of entering middle school. Held at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, the program uses role-playing, art projects and discussion groups to introduce girls to topics like body image, consumerism, assertiveness and healthy decision-making.
Though the programs she implements do vary (depending on what a school's needs are and what the family-services agency deems appropriate), Singer, who is originally from Reading, Pa., said that all of her work is based on the idea of prevention.
That's because after completing her master's degree in social work from Bryn Mawr College, she was employed at a treatment facility for troubled youth. There, Singer said she realized that problems such as alcoholism and drug use needed to be addressed earlier, when parents have more jurisdiction over their children.
"If you work with families when the kids are younger, the families are more engaged, and the kids actually still listen to their parents," she explained. "I wanted to meet it head on."
As a mother of three — she also has a 23-year-old son — the social worker not only advocates greater parental involvement, but practices what she preaches.
The Ardmore resident runs a mother-daughter book club and serves as vice president of the Lower Merion-Narberth Community Coalition, a partnership of agencies and individuals that works to create a safe and healthy environment for students.
She also helped start the Lower Merion-Narberth Youth Aid Panel — a group of community members that hears local juvenile-offense cases. The idea is that, based on evidence presented, the panel can clear the teen of any permanent police record, granted he or she serves an individualized sentence of community service and counseling.
Though Singer does not currently attend a shul, she and her husband, Howard Kaufold, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, belonged for years to Temple Sholom in Broomall.
For their daughters' recent B'nai Mitzvah, the couple worked privately with a Reconstructionist rabbi, selecting prayers and writing a service from scratch.
"I feel much more knowledgeable about my religion now," she said, but "I still feel that most of my spirituality comes from doing good deeds and reaching out to people."