Nederland woman Mistie Layne helps tweens find inner beauty, strength at Tween Esteem Camp

Nederland woman Mistie Layne helps tweens find inner beauty, strength at Tween Esteem Camp

I am beautiful, I am smart, I am strong, I am loved – that’s the message with which Nederland’s Mistie Layne hopes to send home with every girl attending her Tween Esteem Camp.

In the final minutes of the day-long camp, Layne said she has each girl “stand in front of a mirror and shout all that positivity into it as they look at themselves. Parents coming in for graduation hear that, and they love it.”

And families hear their daughters’ new-found strength not just the day of camp, but after, as well.

A group of nearly thirty girls aged 9 to 12 gathered last week at the Medical Center of Southeast Texas for the Tween Esteem Camp led by Layne — head of the non-profit organization The Giving Angels.

It’s the third such camp Layne’s held since last fall and the second partnering with her daughter Lauren Perez.

The pair gathered sponsorships from local business, including Raising Cain’s, VE Centers, TX Pulmonology Institute, Merry-Go-Round Daycare, and more.

“We go out into the community to solicit sponsorships so it’s free for (the girls) to come,” Perez said.

The camp offered a day of talks, activities, workshops and creative play.

Girls learned about age-appropriate make-up, the dangers of vaping from Dr. Roozbeh Sharif, menstruation and money management.

They journaled, made vision boards and shared their feelings with new friends.

Layne’s structured the camp with one goal in mind – to build self-esteem at a developmentally critical age and, ultimately, help young girls find their voice.

Those voices started small at first – muted repetitions of the phrase Layne had them chant, “I am beautiful. I am smart. I am strong. I am loved.”

Related: Port Arthur holds camp for pre-teen girls

Within minutes, the shouts of that slogan echoed through the halls of the hospital, well beyond the conference rooms where they’d gathered.

The chant was led by youth volunteers, including Miss Bridge City Ally Yeaman and Junior Miss Southeast Texas Ava Doyle.

The pair wore glittering tiaras atop their heads and earlier in the morning led a session on age-appropriate make up.

But their message was more than skin-deep.

Doyle talked about how music “and writing songs is a way of coping with my feelings” whenever she is sad or stressed.

Yeaman’s story struck a different chord with the group.

Every sliver lining has a dark cloud, and that is where Yeaman’s story lives.

Yeaman had been a cheerleader throughout high school. For her, it was more than a sport. It was her passion and joy until a new team member began to bully her.

Yeaman said she thing to stand up for herself by bullying the girl back.

“That made me feel so awful about myself,” she told the group, “because I had this reputation as a nice sweet girl.”

That reputation wasn’t the only thing Yeaman lost when she thing to bully.

“I got kicked off the cheerleading team,” she said. “I cried like a baby when I turned over my pom poms.”

But “with every mistake comes a lesson. Being mean is not the person I was or needed to be,” Yeaman said.

She eventually found a new sport – power lifting – and a team that “welcomed me with open arms” and reclaimed the reputation and self-respect she’d lost.

Loss and redemption, choices and consequences – it’s a story Layne knows well.

It’s one she shares with campers each session.

Related: Lamar’s STEM camp for girls

Mistie Layne grew up in a “good family,” she told them.

By the age of 32, she was on her way to pursuing a life-long dream of becoming a surgeon — studying in medical school while juggling life as a wife and mother of two children.

Layne’s dreams came crashing down after learning her husband was cheating, however, and they divorced.

“This story,” she cautioned her young audience, is “about to get deep.”

What she was about to share wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty.

Her divorce led to a deep depression, amid which Layne became involved in a new relationship. Her boyfriend introduced her to cocaine, “and I got addicted immediately,” she said.

Layne remained an addict for 10 years.

“It destroyed my family; it destroyed my life,” she said.

But those weren’t the only casualty of Layne’s addiction.

One night, while under the influence, Layne was speeding to get away from someone who’d attempted to steal her car, she recounted.

Her car crashed into a parked vehicle, which ultimately struck an elderly woman working in her front yard.

That woman’s life was also destroyed that day, and Layne was sentenced to 40 years in prison for vehicular manslaughter.

Another loss was had in Layne’s battle with addiction – the loss of freedom.

“When I was in jail, what helped me get through thinking about the fact that I was there for 40 years, was deciding I’d find one thing I was grateful for every day. Maybe it was my curly hair, maybe it was my family,” Layne said.

Whatever it was, it was all about finding gratitude every day for the things she had, big and small, and writing them down.

Layne got lucky, she said, and was released early.

She returned home, returned to school to study nuclear medicine and reconnected with her daughter and new granddaughter, who was disabled due to complications at birth.

The brain damage she suffered left her unable to hear or talk and ultimately led to her granddaughter’s death shortly after Layne came home.

It was August 18, 2009 – two years to the day since Layne had gotten her early release from prison.

“I convinced myself because of the date that it was my fault, that I’d brought that on,” Layne said.

It was fate’s way of paying her back for the ills she’d begotten.

Instead of spiraling back into addiction, Layne chose a different path.

“My granddaughter never had a voice. So, I decided I was going to use my voice, stop being the victim, and use (that voice) to help others,” she said.

Layne started writing, literally writing, her wrongs. It forged a new path of healing and redemption and led to her becoming a published author and motivational speaker.

“Writing saved my life,” she told the girls, and it’s an outlet for self-empowerment she’s passing along to them.

Related: The healing words of local poet Dorothy Clover

“I get deep with them, but I think it makes them respect what I’m telling them,” Layne said. “(Seeing that) I’m honest with myself allows them to be honest with themselves. If you allow them to be, they’ll be honest, and they need that.”

After sharing her story, Layne asked the group to journal on negatives in their lives.

“This is for you to release that negativity – get it out,” Layne told the group as they settled into writing, heads buried in the notebooks laid before them.

“This is why I do these camps. Write out your feelings and why you feel that way,” she said. “Write it out, ladies, write it out. You can use that piece of paper to be your best friend.”

Later, after the girls finished their first timed writing exercise, Layne had them repeat the phrase, “I am in control of my destiny.” Then, she asked them to “write about how to change all that negativity you just wrote about.”

Again, the room fell into a deep silence.

After several minutes, Layne asked if anyone was willing to share.

There were some who’d been bullied and others who were bullies hoping to change.

Layne’s become accustomed to hearing young girls share difficult truths.

“At the first camp we had in Amarillo, some shared intense personal experiences, like severe molestation, homelessness and absentee parents addicted to drugs,” Layne said.

By getting them to write out their stories, Layne hopes to bring them the healing which writing’s brought her.

Mid-way through the camp, the girls were already absorbing the lesson.

“I learned about age appropriate make-up and self-confidence and writing things out when you’re sad,” said second-time camper Baylee Melancon, 9 of Groves.

Cousins ​​Autumn Engerran and Zoey Babb were attending their second camp with Layne, as well.

“This place is really fun. I feel like I’ve changed and got more confidence,” Engerran said. “I feel like I can be myself here, and I’ve learned not to worry about what people think about me. It doesn’t hurt me anymore.”

Babb agreed, saying, “I can be myself and not act another way because someone tells me to.”

Gaining self-confidence was especially important to 9-year-old McKenna Johnson.

“Some people are not gonna be so nice, but you have to surround yourself with good people who lift you up,” she said. “I got held back (in school) because I’m dyslexic. There was a group of about five girls in my new class that bullied me because I was held back.”

It was a painful year, but this year Johnson will go back to school with a different voice inside her head – one that says, “I am beautiful. I didn’t think that before,” Johnson said.

Helping girls find their voice and confidence is a mission that’s quickly growing for Layne, who has more camps already in the works.

The next will be held August 27, in Orange, followed by another in Houston next month.

Layne’s also gotten requests to lead camps in communities as far away as Chicago and Arizona and from area Girl Scout troops.

She didn’t set out to do camps monthly, “but the community is pretty much demanding it more often. We have waiting lists already,” she said.

“It depends on sponsorships and how long it takes me to get them, but we want one at least every other month. This has potential to spread empowerment to tweens everywhere,” she said.

The message of empowerment won’t be coming just from her. It will be coming from tweens with whom she’s interacted throughout the camp experience.

“For every 2022 camper, I’m going to offer them the opportunity to write a chapter (in my next book), and that’s going to be a best-selling book,” Layne said.

“I’m a 12-time best selling author, and I’m gonna make that promise,” Layne said.

It’s a promise to them, but also one to herself — to be a force for good in the wake of her own bad decisions, she said.

“No matter what happens in your life, it’s what you do on the other side that sets you apart.”

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