South Charlotte

Anti-bullying club makes for Strong Girls

Many children know what it's like to be picked on but don't know what to do about it.

That's why Alyssa Forgach Watson started the Strong Girls Club last year.

Watson, 24, grew up in south Charlotte attending McKee Road Elementary, Crestdale Middle and Providence High. She now lives in the Kingsley neighborhood with her husband, Toby, and their 2-year-old daughter, Kailey.

Watson, a fourth-degree black belt, started taekwondo at 8. She remembers how many of her friends in school were teased, humiliated and often bullied.

"Martial arts helped me so much with my confidence," she said. "I never had to fight anyone, but everyone knew I did taekwondo and they left me alone."

Watson founded the Strong Girls Club in January 2010 to teach girls self-defense skills and to talk to them about how to deal with difficult problems.

In the club's girls-only classes, the students learn about respect and patience, basic kicks, punches and blocks, and, most importantly, how to be confident. The once-a-week classes, which last 45-55 minutes, cost $65 a month.

"A lot of the girls doing Strong Girls, I had tried to get in one of my taekwondo classes, and they wouldn't do it because of the boys," Watson said.

Watson said her mother reminded her of the insecurities she felt competing with boys when she was growing up.

"I really would've liked an all-girls class when I was young," Watson said. "I always had to spar with the boys, but when I was 11, 12, 13, the boys were getting stronger even though I was working harder. It made me feel like, 'What am I doing wrong?'

"But what I'm trying to get through to these girls is that even though boys might be physically stronger, we can be stronger with our minds."

Watson teaches two Strong Girls Club classes and seven taekwondo classes at the Jewish Community Center off Providence Road. She also teaches preschool programs at various locations.

"Strong Girls is what I'm most passionate about right now," Watson said. "Eventually I'd like to do a teen program, too, and I hope to reach out to some different economic areas as well."

At the first class of this school year, Watson explained the rules that establish respect and self-control.

Before they worked on kicks and jabs, Watson told the girls when it was OK to use self-defense. If a schoolmate is trying to push or hit them, the girls should employ bully-blocking techniques until they can get an adult.

"The second is 'stranger danger,' " Watson said. "If a stranger is trying to take you away and you don't know them, then you go taekwondo on them."

Amid exercises and drills, Watson also held empowerment talks.

"If someone says 'I don't like you,' we can always say something like 'Really? I really like you and I was hoping maybe we can be friends,' and then you walk away," she told the girls. "If it's a bully who is mean to you every day, you should talk to your teacher or your parents. But what I say is, fight them with kindness - then they'll run out of reasons to be mean to you."

At the end of class, Watson holds a story time in which she asks the girls if anyone has something bothering them that they'd like to talk about.

Zoe Felder, 8, rides horses; she started the discussion by explaining her fear of learning how to canter.

"Being scared is your mind's way of saying 'Don't play around, stay focused,' and that's OK," Watson said. "But you can't let it stop you from doing what you love. You can be scared, but you have to work at it and try to overcome it."

Throughout the year, Watson said, she will focus on topics like tolerance, community outreach and kindness.