MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Girls are powerful. Strong. That’s the message school officials wanted to get across to middle school girls Friday, Feb. 2, and it’s one that hasn’t changed in the four years since the first Middle Township Middle School Girls Night Lock-In.

“I.” It was the first of four words that would build to a shout, drop to a whisper, and then run unbroken into a chant.

“Believe. In. Me.”

Carol Pittaluga, a local motivational speaker, enunciated each word, and the voices of more than 180 girls joined in.

“I believe in me.” The cry rose throughout the school cafeteria, where the girls joined together for a night aimed at building camaraderie and belief in one another. Their voices rose. Then quieted.

The girls climbed onto the cafeteria tables and threw their arms into the air.

Each looked at her neighbor. “I believe in you!”

It was a night of affirmation, belief and empowerment.

“The lock-in is a great opportunity for our girls,” said Principal Jeff Ortman, one of the few men at the event. “They talk about it for weeks in advance. They look forward to tonight.”

Ortman ducked out early, at about 6:30 p.m. The other few scattered males were gone less than an hour later.

“This is a night for the girls,” Ortman said. “It’s a night about learning more about themselves and each other. Not many middle schools offer an opportunity like this, and it makes Middle Township Middle School stand out.”

The organizers, school counselor Monica DeRose and school nurse Lee Ann Kane, said the lock-in has grown over the years, and that Friday’s overnight stay at the middle school with nearly 200 girls ages 11 to 14 was the largest ever.

“Our format hasn’t changed since the first Girls Night Lock-In,” DeRose said. “We bring all the girls in for one large activity to begin with, and then break them up into smaller groups for smaller activities.”

The activities included a talent showcase, Kane said.

“We also have yoga, dance and spa, and beauty,” she said. Dinner was scheduled for 6:45 p.m., served by volunteers from Bethel Commandment Church, parents and teachers. Ice cream sundaes, snacks, a scavenger hunt and movies were part of the evening’s agenda.

Kane said the lock-in was well chaperoned, with about 15 volunteers from the teaching staff, as well as a few moms.

The rules were simple: Be respectful, have fun, make friends, and clean up after yourself.

“Remember,” Ortman said as he was leaving. “It’s cool to be kind.”

The girls, knowing his football loyalties, responded with the Eagles fight song, and the principal bent his arms and contorted his body to spell out "Eagles" in advance of Sunday’s game.

With the principal gone, the evening of girl power began in earnest. They talked, shared stories and jokes, likes, loves, hopes and dreams.

“I’m in the eighth grade, and this is my last chance to do this,” said Alexia Quinn.

Her friend, Carissa Conway, shared that thought, and the two tag-teamed answers to questions.

“This is about bonding with your best friends, and a chance to make new friends.” Quinn said. “It’s also about building our self-esteem.”

Conway nodded. “This is girl time,” she said. “If you’ve got any grudges against anyone, tonight you let them go.”

Conway and Quinn said that they and the rest of the girls at the lock-in were actually living the message that Kane, DeRose and school volunteers were trying to get across.

Girls are powerful.

Girls are amazing.

Each is an individual, and yet part of the whole.

“Tonight is about empowerment, health and wellness, and the chance for girls to be girls without worrying what other people think,” Kane said. “The girls get to be themselves and just have fun.”

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