For cousins Nikita Adams and Barbara Foster, growing up wasn’t easy.

The Austin natives endured years of bullying and teasing throughout elementary and high schools. The taunting shattered their self-esteem, forcing them to drop out of school and turn to drugs. The cousins turned their anguish into a program to help teens avoid the mistakes they made and to deal with the isolation often associated with bullying.

Their nonprofit Strawberry Girls focuses on social and emotional learning and teaches girls how to overcome bullying. Geared toward elementary and high school students, the program also teaches violence prevention and discourages the use of profanity.

The program is in three Austin schools, including Ella Flagg Young Elementary School, 1434 N. Parkside, where Adams and Foster encountered their schoolyard bully. Adams still remembers the stinging words from her tormentors.

“They used to call me fat, black, ugly, dark, roach,” recalled Adams, who founded the program in 2006. “Now that I look back on it, it was a pretty sad thing to go through, because I really didn’t do anything to anyone.”

Her ordeal was even more painful since there was hardly anything she or her mother could do to prevent the bullying. “I remember my mother complaining, but I don’t remember anything happening,” Adams said.

Foster experienced physical abuse at the hands of a bully. She was often punched and hit. The abuse ended when Foster transferred to another school, but the emotional scars remain.

“Emotionally, I had to grow and mature from that, and I want to tell other girls that they don’t have to be ashamed. If someone is hurting you, tell someone,” said Foster, who attends Northwestern Business College.

Adams started the program three years ago when she discovered her 12-year-old daughter was also being bullied at another school. Adams, who attends Chicago State University, wrote a book called, “The Bully that Wouldn’t Leave” about her own experience. The book was therapeutic, she said, having begun to believe the negative comments other students made about her.

“It helped me release all my negative feelings,” Adams said, adding that teens experiencing bullying should tell a teacher. If that doesn’t work, then tell another adult or ignore them. “When you ignore them, they get real upset, and they just stop talking.”

But Nikita Adams and Foster believe that bullying occurs on a massive scale. Partnering with community groups, schools and mentor organizations, like Strawberry Girls, is a way to curb it, they insist. Adams contends teachers are key to preventing bullying. They should address it when it happens, she said, but schools often turn to the police as a quick fix. They say there are other steps that can be taken before it gets that far where a child gets a police record.

The program also works to build self-esteem through healthy living. Foster and Adams incorporated healthy lifestyle choices to help teens avoid smoking, drugs and violence as part of their beautiful living workshop. They believe anything that harms the body or mind is violence.

“We want to give them advice on how to not go down that road,” Foster said. “It is OK to be different and not do what everybody else is doing in society or what they see on TV.”

The program also teaches self-worth through community services. Strawberry Girls holds a fund-raiser at the end of their four-week program. Students raise funds for charities that do work in Africa, such as providing clean drinking water for Kenya. Students at Ella Flagg Young Elementary School raised money to help brighten smiles of children suffering from cleft palates.

Last week, the students raised $158 for the Smile Train, an organization that provides free surgery for the crippling facial deformity. Foster and Adams said the fundraising teaches service and leadership.

Only two weeks into the program, 13-year-old Niakea Thomas says she’s already benefited from it. Thomas struggles with self-esteem and sometimes believes she is not pretty. She said the program restored her self-confidence.

“You should always think positive about yourself,” Thomas said. “People shouldn’t feel down about themselves, because you are you, and you shouldn’t care what others think.”

Terri Drape, 13, learned a lot from the program’s beautiful living workshop-that acting like a lady doesn’t involve profanity.

“You want to act like a lady because you are going to be a lady,” the seventh grader said.

Learn more

The Strawberry Girls

Nikita Adams, founder,

Donations sent courtesy Good City, 5049 W. Harrison Street, Chicago, IL., 60644; attention Strawberry Girls c/o Smile Train.