And yet, on this early spring afternoon in South Los Angeles, here was a group of students from St. Eugene School, eagerly participating in lessons on how to set a table properly, and how to behave when eating at public places, and how to practice what used to be called “good manners.”Why? Because they knew that what they were about to learn would go beyond the lunch or dinner table. It would help them for the future and most important, they felt acknowledged.“I really love it, it’s really fun; they take care of me and make me feel really loved,” Jessica Laar, a St. Eugene fifth grader, told The Tidings during a two-hour workshop held weekly in the “Girl’s Paradise,” a classroom professionally decorated with painted crowns and “Love” and “Empowerment” banners. Laar was one of 15 participants in the six-week “preventative” etiquette program sponsored by Crown Jewel Club, an El Segundo-based nonprofit founded in 2005 by Jane Phillips, a retired NBC editor who wanted to give back to the community by empowering young girls and boys in at-risk areas. St. Eugene’s was the first Catholic school to receive the program, and Phillips said parents’ involvement was higher compared to public schools. The classroom, decorated with the support of an interior designer, included deep purple velvety drapes over the windows and gold tablecloths on the tables.Leona Sorrell, St. Eugene’s principal, approved the program once vice-principal Celynda Wilder-Kingsby returned “highly motivated” after visiting a session at another venue. They believed it would provide more coping tools for the students in the mostly African American K-8 school, a large percentage of whom receive financial support from the Catholic Education Foundation or elsewhere.“Many of them do not know what to do and how to behave” in certain circumstances and “prefer listening to their peers than to their parents,” Sorrell said. “Students in at-risk areas are vulnerable to taking the wrong turn, and are exposed to drugs and other gang-related activities.”The etiquette program, Sorrell said, would also provide an opportunity for the students to open or broaden their communication with their parents and other family members.‘Building self-esteem’Building the participants’ self-esteem and self-confidence is at the core of the volunteer-based Crown Jewel’s program, according to Phillips. Basic etiquette and social skills, she noted, are “essential to building self-esteem and self-confidence for academic achievement and overall success in life.”The program offers participants an opportunity to compete in the job world and socially, according to executive director Elizabeth Gilbert, graduate student at Harvard.“It puts them on an equal playing field,” added Phillips. “It might be their only chance to step up their lives; the only chance they have to have a good life.”At the end of each year, the nonprofit hosts a reunion party where the girls are surveyed. Last year’s results show that 99 percent of participants are still using the skills they learned; 94 percent did not have sex when asked, 92 percent did not join a gang when asked, and 90 percent did not do drugs. Schools have observed an increase in attendance and a decrease in “disciplinary issues” among participants. The girls are reviewed every year until they graduate from high school, and during that time they learn new skills, including financial, dealing with bullying and service to the community.“This is the only time many of these girls might feel loved,” said Phillips about the gatherings. “Love is the essence of our program.” Actually, she added, “I truly believe this is God’s program and I’m just his vehicle. What I like here [at St. Eugene] is that I can talk about God. Here you can really build on love and that God is love.”Reflection and lessonDuring one afternoon session, the St. Eugene participants were asked to think and write about the activities they currently do that helps them have a better life. The lists included prayer, tooth brushing, laughing, having a good sense of humor, eating healthy, daily exercise, staying around good people, showing respect for others, being trustworthy and studying hard.In each session the girls are urged to reflect on questions such as “What do I like about myself?”, “What am I grateful for?” and “What makes me happy?”, or to think about their goals in life. They were also encouraged to write their weaknesses and to figure out ways to turn those around.Their writing is kept in the “Jewel Book,” a journal specially designed for them.“This book speaks jewels about you,” Phillips told the young girls as they penned their thoughts. She encouraged them to look in a mirror every day and to repeat the positive ideas they write on the notebook.Then came the class about setting a table and behaving properly. Among the lessons (illustrated on a projection screen):—If you drop a utensil or napkin, ask for a new one.—Don’t gulp water.—Don’t eat too fast or too slow.—Chew with your mouth shut. Desiree Rideaux, a volunteer and mother of one of the students, expressed satisfaction with the lessons taught.“This truly helps the girls to behave and to like themselves,” she said. “At an early age they are taught to pick up on unconscious behavior and to gain self-confidence.”In a simple yet emotional April 13 “Afternoon Crown Tea” graduation ceremony, the St. Eugene students, dressed in their best gowns and hats, earned the “Pearl” degree, joining the more than 400 graduates from the Crown Jewel Club to date. They were told by organizers that by setting goals and working hard they can achieve anything they want in life. “There are no limits,” they said.Principal Sorrell said the results have been “outstanding” inside and outside the school. A follow-up session is slated for May 25.For more information about Crown Jewel Club, visit or call (310) 508-7933.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0513/steugene/{/gallery}