Monday, November 23, 2015

PACE Center for Girls: Where At-Risk Girls Grow and Change

In elementary school Kalyin was the target of bullying, and by high school, it had taken its toll. Kalyin ran away from home, went to two high schools and dropped out of both.  But at the PACE Center for Girls, a Miami-Dade County Public Schools Alternative Outreach Program for girls ages 11-17, she was transformed.   She became a school leader, won the Department of Juvenile Justice Star Student of the Year award, and has graduated from high school.

Until Kalyin came to PACE, she said, “Nobody seemed to understand what I was going through. Instead of asking me what was wrong and trying to help, people made it seem like I was just a bad kid.”

Like Kalyin, all the girls at PACE face serious challenges. They come from unstable families, are failing in school or have other serious school issues, have health or mental health problems including eating disorders and thoughts of suicide, demonstrate negative attitudes or behavior, and/or have experienced victimization of some sort.  Substantial numbers have histories of arrest, family members in prison or on probation, experience with physical and/or sexual abuse. Seventy-five percent live in poverty or near-poverty.  Every girl accepted to the program is living with at least three of these problems.

And like Kaylin, most do well.  Whereas 79% were failing one or more classes before coming to PACE, 94% improve academically as a result of their PACE experience.  More important, while 31% had criminal involvement before PACE, 92% have no involvement with crime afterwards.[i] At PACE they acquire a positive sense of themselves and their potential, and they gain an appreciation for respect, integrity, excellence, and courage.

How does PACE do it?

The answer begins with the application and intake process.  After carefully reviewing the referral application (which can be submitted by parents, teachers, counselors, probation officers or anyone else who identifies the need), academic records and other documentation, and after interviewing the girl and her family, the staff analyzes her needs and whether they feel they can help her.  They offer placement only to girls who they feel fit well with the current student body and whom they feel they can help.  But while the answer begins with a careful selection process, the key to the program’s success and the core around which every other aspect of the program is built – discipline, counseling, academics and community service -- is its total commitment to positivism.

Even when an applicant is not offered a place, “we never say ‘reject,’” said executive director Sherry Thompson Giordano.  “If we can’t help them, we help them find the program that can help them best.”

Although some girls are referred to PACE by the juvenile justice system, no one can force them to attend.  And in agreeing to take placement at PACE, each girl must buy in to certain conditions: to attend every day, to attend 12 months a year, to respect others, to not disrupt the classroom.  She must agree to The Five P’s:  to be prepared, prompt, patient, productive, and polite.  The girls are held to these standards with a complex system of reminders, positive reinforcement and rewards.

The Five P’s and nine guiding principles are everywhere: signs in every classroom and every office. They’re decaled on the walls of the hall in colors that are designed for calming and learning.

“We iterate, reiterate, and live these values.,”  Sherry said. The staff expect this behavior from the girls, and the girls quickly learn they will receive it from staff in return.  While the staff will not tolerate disrespect, the girls know that every staff member is on their side. Because the school’s values are modeled consistently by the staff, the school environment is comfortable and embracing, unlike many of the girls’ homes.  Before long, PACE feels safe and protective. It’s the place they want to be.  

Good behavior is rewarded and inappropriate behavior recorded on an elaborate system of beads and charms. Every girl carries a “bead sheet,” a card on which teachers note the good behaviors they observe.  At the end of the week, marks on the girls’ bead sheets are tallied, the girls’ behaviors are noted on their records, and the girls receive beads reflecting these good behaviors, which they wear on a necklace they received when they were admitted to the school.  At the end of the month, the girls exchange their beads for charms – 10 beads for one charm.  Every six weeks, they can use these charms as currency at the school “boutique,” where they can purchase cosmetics, jewelry, clothing and accessories.

Girls exchange beads for charms

“The girls try to act as though none of this matters, but it really matters to them. They want as many beads as they can get,” Sherry said. As acquiring the beads becomes competitive, it generates positive self-esteem.

Progress is further noted at “level ceremonies.”  PACE has identified four levels of growth and leadership, reflecting behavior, attendance, punctuality and academic performance. The level ceremonies acknowledge this growth, and other rewards follow:  the opportunity to address community groups or to represent the school at luncheons and breakfasts, for example.

Monthly Level Ceremony

This is not to say that PACE’s positive approach works instantly or flawlessly.  Especially at the beginning of each girl’s time at PACE, compliance with the school’s expectations is less than perfect and on occasion there are major episodes that require police intervention.  But, in the spirit of positivism and the school’s strength based approach, no one talks about punishment.   “We don’t say, ‘you’ve been a bad girl,’” explained Sherry.  Instead it’s “You have other choices you could have made. Let’s talk about why you made the choice you did.” 

This approach acknowledges that in the heat of anger people sometimes do things that they wouldn’t do if they had the time and the composure to think the situation through.  This approach gets the girls to begin to recognize that every choice – good or bad – has consequences – good or bad.  And it helps to teach them how to cope.

In class, if a girl is displaying inappropriate behavior, the teacher will give a verbal warning and a negative mark on the bead sheet.  If this doesn’t work, she will give what PACE calls a “redirect.” The girl is asked to remain in the classroom and to think about what better choice she might have made.  If she gets a second “redirect” the same day, she and teacher discuss her behavior and some better alternatives.  In a third “redirect” that day, the teacher focuses on growth and change.  And on the rare occasion when there is a fourth, the school calls home and the girl is sent home for the rest of that day and the next with a writing assignment to reflect on why she was sent home.   

But, stressed Alexandra, “They don’t put you down.”  Alexandra, who came to PACE after skipping classes, getting suspended, and having a physical altercation with a classmate, credits this positive approach with her ability to control her emotions and improve her grades and attitude.

Supporting all this positive reinforcement is a strong scaffold of counseling. Upon acceptance, each student meets with her counselor to identify her issues and devise a plan to deal with them.  Sara, for example, had trouble controlling her anger, was failing in school, and was dabbling in drugs.  So she worked with a partner organization that provided drug treatment and education.  In weekly sessions, she worked with her counselor on managing her anger.  And her teachers focused on her academic deficits. 

Sometimes parents need counseling, and sometimes they must agree to accept it as a condition of their daughter’s acceptance.  In these cases, PACE makes referrals to partner agencies.

Once a week, the staff gathers to discuss each student’s progress and intercept incipient problems. To the extent that confidentiality allows, counselors help teachers and staff to understand the issues driving each girl’s behavior. Every two weeks the girls meet in “psychosocial groups” to focus on subjects such as health and wellness, grief and sexual exploitation. Once a month, each student and her parents meet with the counselor and teachers to discuss progress.  And once every three months, staff makes a home visit.

Superimposed on this system of counseling and positive reinforcement is a structured school schedule. Girls arrive at school for breakfast at 7:30 a. m. They secure all their personal possessions, including purses and cell phones, in a locked room.  If they are not wearing their school uniform, they borrow uniform clothing from the school. Everyone must be in uniform.

Classes, divided into 90-minute learning blocks, begin at 8:00, with a break for lunch at 11:30 and dismissal at 2:50.  Students take math, science, social studies, English and intensive reading. Students are placed into middle school and high school cohorts with 10-12 students per class, each class separated into three or four learning levels.  Some high school students are working at middle school level, and the teachers are especially adept at managing this.  The math teacher, for example, can teach basic arithmetic and algebra in the same class.  Time in class is set aside to complete “homework” and work on study skills.  Also scheduled into these 90-minute blocks are community service projects and classes in life skills and career readiness.

 “I have never met teachers as nice and understanding as these,” said Emily whose traumatic childhood with a drug-addicted mother and the foster care system left her defiant, truant and on the verge of being expelled from school. “They are [at PACE] because they care about us succeeding.  You do not know how much it means to have so many people who care.”

Sherry Thompson Giordano and PACE girls

PACE is open year round, students are admitted on a rolling basis, and students typically remain at PACE for 15 months before graduating or returning to their home school. They come from the length and breadth of Miami-Dade County usually by public transportation, with passes issued by the school.  As time to leave PACE approaches, the girls work with their counselors on transitioning out and then return once a month to meet with the counselor.  Every three months, the school holds a transition celebration, a reunion of sorts for former students.

Begun in Jacksonville 30 years ago, the PACE concept is now a statewide network of 19 schools. PACE Miami is the newest center, with 70 students, 17 staff and two interns.  Half the school’s annual budget of $1.7 million comes from the Department of Juvenile Justice, 20% from the Department of Education, and the balance from private funding.[ii]  When funds permit, PACE would like to open a second center at the south end of the county.

PACE Center for Girls of Miami
1400 NW 36th Street, Suite 200
Miami, FL 33142
T: 786-254-2460; F: 786-456-4682
Sherry Thompson Giordano, Executive Director

[i] Statistics from PACE Center for Girls 2014 Annual Report

[ii] PACE is currently raffling a seven-day Royal Caribbean cruise as a means of raising funds for the Miami Center. Drawing will take place December 10, 2015.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Planned Parenthood Teen Outreach Program: Shining a Light on Hope and Ambition

When kids have known little more than poverty, drive-by shootings, and the narrow confines of their inner city communities, how do you persuade them that life has rich possibilities?  How do you keep them from short-circuiting their potential by dropping out of school or getting pregnant or both? How do you give them hope and ambition?

One answer is Planned Parenthood’s Teen Outreach Program (TOP®), an opportunity for kids to learn healthy behaviors and life skills, find an adult they can confide in, and encounter opportunities they could never even imagine.  Each of these components plays a critical role, and combined they can be transformative.

At Miami Northwestern Senior High, serving one of South Florida’s poorest and most crime-plagued communities, TOP works within the required Freshman Experience class throughout the school year. Teaching the classes are professional educators, called facilitators, selected in part for their youth and their ability to inspire the trust of their students.  Their mandate is to be non-judgmental, to listen and be open to whatever the students say.   

With honesty and candor each facilitator guides discussions of sensitive, sometimes controversial subjects including sexuality, healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, effective communication, goal setting, decision making, health and hygiene, and more. Lessons are presented creatively, with videos, outside speakers, role playing and other activities.  Each session includes time to reflect on what the students have learned and an opportunity to spell out what they’ve learned in writing.

On one recent Wednesday, the focus was personal values. Class began with the ninth graders working to distinguish between their genuinely held beliefs and messages they receive from family, peers, media, church, and neighborhood.  Do they really believe, that boys are not attracted to smart girls?  That money does not make you happy?  That you can’t love someone else until you love yourself? That boys manipulate you so that you will submit to sex?  

After a discussion of the validity of these messages, it was time to put their money – play money – where their values were, as the facilitators held a “values auction.” Each student received $500 that she could use to buy the values she most highly prized. The bidding was fast and furious as travel, college education, physical fitness, true love, freedom from HIV and STDs and other valued aspects of life came up on the auction block. 

Why did you feel excited about the value you bought, the facilitator asked when the auction was over.  In the ensuing discussion, the students acknowledged that they were willing to pay more for some values than for others, and they came to identify the values that were important to them.  Before the class ended, they spent a few minutes mapping out how they could begin to live their values – working to get good grades, hanging around with the right crowd, staying away from gangs.

In addition to the once-weekly classes, the students with their facilitators complete at least 20 hours of community service.  They research possibilities, identify a need, help design activities and then choose which ones they will participate in. Afterwards they analyze the experience – what happened during the project, the meaning it has, and how might they apply this experience in the future.
Miami Northwestern students attend an anti-bullying summit
The kids have walked for domestic violence and breast cancer awareness, read to younger children, participated in a park clean-up. They have painted a mural for the school, conducted an anti-bullying campaign, made hygiene kits for residents of homeless shelters, shot a film.  Through these project, they venture into unfamiliar environments to help people with unfamiliar needs. They collaborate and cooperate with each other, learn new skills and see that their effort has an impact.  Suddenly, community service takes on a whole new meaning.  Whereas previously community service was what a judge ordered if they got in trouble with the law, they now come to see it as taking ownership of and responsibility for the world around them:  their school, their neighborhood, the larger community.

The program adopted and implemented by Planned Parenthood of South East and North Florida in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties comes from the Wyman Center in St. Louis, MO. Now over 30-years old, this nationally replicated program is found to reduce risk of school suspension by 56%, course failure by 60% and pregnancy by 53%. 

Painting a mural at Miami Northwestern
These numbers are evidence based.  Nevertheless a skeptic might reasonably ask:  Given the temptations outside of school, how can this program reduce truancy?  With all the fears and frustrations found in impoverished communities, how can this program discourage delinquent activity?  Given adolescent peer pressure, the boyfriend who says, ‘Make a baby for me,’ the promise of unconditional love, the fantasy of being special and important, how can this program reduce the likelihood that participants will not become pregnant?

Again, each aspect of the program contributes to the answer.     Whereas many of the students are already sexually active, it is in this class that they first separate fact from myth and learn about how women really get pregnant.  They also learn how easy it is to get HIV or an STD, and they are put off. Combine this lesson with others on respect, self-respect, and goal setting, and the instruction is powerful.

Reinforcing the classroom lessons are the community service projects and special events, which open the students’ eyes to new, exciting experiences and opportunities. As the students identify needs, plan projects, and execute their plans, they develop skills, gain a new sense of themselves and what they can accomplish. In turn, ambition, interest in education, and academic achievement all improve.  Suddenly, they see staying in school as a ticket to this tantalizing future.  Getting in trouble with the law appears as an impediment, as does having a baby.  

"Sock It to Breast Cancer
Perhaps the most critical ingredient in the TOP program is the trusted adult.  Although the facilitators are with the students in class only one hour a week, they spend abundant informal time together on the service projects and going to community events. They are available full time in school throughout the academic year. And, when necessary, they give the kids their cell numbers so they can to call or text at night and on weekends.

“The process of building trust with this program is so unique,” said teacher Denise Simmons.    It begins with her non-judgmental approach to sensitive subjects and difficult questions in class.  It continues outside of class with an open invitation to discuss anything and everything, which usually means relationships, drugs, marriage and sex.

 “I don’t talk about these things with my parents,” said ninth grader Keshawnna, who values being able to confide in her TOP facilitator.

Knowing that the facilitators will be honest, thoughtful and candid, the kids share intimate secrets and secret problems. In one instance, teacher Twyla Russell encountered a student who was especially aggressive and outspoken.  In time and after much conversation, Twyla learned the girl had nine siblings, was left to fend for herself most of the time, and felt unloved and resentful.  She needed shoes for ROTC, and Twyla worked with school resources to get them for her.  More important, she needed parenting.  More conversation, and arrangements were made for the girl to live with her godparents, where she received the guidance and attention she needed. With this support, her behavior and grades improved.

In another instance, a student appeared to be overreacting to a class discussion on rape.  In speaking with the girl, Denise learned that she had been raped by her uncle and was now feeling guilty because this man had begun raping his daughter.  Denise notified the proper authorities, the girl is receiving trauma counseling, and now she sees how she can help others.

At Miami Northwestern Senior High, four full-time facilitators teach 10 classes, with no more than 25 students per facilitator.  In addition TOP operates as a once weekly extracurricular middle school activity at two Miami Northwestern feeder schools, Brownsville Middle School and Charles Drew K-8, where two facilitators run both groups. A program director rounds out the staff. All told an estimated 450 Miami-Dade County students experience this extraordinary program, now in its seventh year. 

For four years TOP has also been operating in Palm Beach County, where a staff of seven runs the program ad 10 schools serving 650 students. Budget in Palm Beach County is $400,000 and derives from several national and local sources.

In Miami-Dade, the $300,000 budget comes principally from the Hiram Brown Foundation. With additional funds Planned Parenthood could launch this invaluable program at additional schools.

Teen Outreach Program
Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida
7900 NW 27 Avenue,
Miami, FL 33147
P: 789-505-4866   F: 786-517-6138

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Brains and Beauty Girls Club: Shaping Unruly Girls into Responsible, Self-Respecting Young Ladies

Kofo Odediran knows something about self-loathing.  In high school, she had no friends, no self-esteem. “I felt like the bottom of one shoe,” she said, and attempted suicide more than once. Now a vivacious, self-assured 37-year-old, she vividly remembers the pain she felt as a teen.  It is this memory that fuels her passion: empowering young girls to deal with the peer pressure, social challenges and educational stressors almost every child and adolescent face.  Her vehicle is the Brains and Beauty Girls Club (B. a. B.), an after-school organization for elementary, middle and high school girls that fosters good grades, nurtures good moral character, emphasizes inward and outward beauty, and works to create well-rounded, well-behaved young ladies.

Indeed, the club is transformative. At the outset the girls are giggly, immature and insecure. They commonly act out, get into fights, disrupt their classes, cause a ruckus in the cafeteria. Well before year’s end, however, they grow into disciplined, responsible, self-respecting young ladies.

This was boldly apparent at Biscayne Gardens Elementary School one Wednesday afternoon in April.  As the third, fourth and fifth graders meandered in for their weekly meeting, each said, “Good afternoon, Ms. K.”  The girls chatted until Ms. K was ready to begin.  The instant she called the group to order, they were silent.  They watched her intently as she explained the day’s activity: crafting a business plan for an imaginary company. Hands flew up to answer the questions she posed. When the girls momentarily lost focus, Ms. K instantaneously brought them back with a well-practiced two-line chant that she began and they completed in perfect unison.
Biscayne Gardens Elementary School students explain "Dynamic Divas," the dance studio they are planning

For the day’s project, Ms. K divided the girls into groups of three or four, gave each a list of questions to answer and points to consider.  And when it came time for each group to present their plans, they stood at the head of the room and spoke clearly with poise and self-control.

Every aspect of the B. a. B experience and everything that Ms. K does is designed to achieve these results.  It begins with the application process, which includes an essay on why each girl wants to belong and, for the high school girls, an interview. It continues with the rules and regulations, which spell out expectations for behavior and academic performance. Parents, who must sign the application, and students, who must sign the rules and regulations, know their membership is threatened if they get any D’s or F’s in coursework or conduct or if they engage in fighting, foul language, vandalism, skipping class, bullying, or disrespectful behavior toward adults.

The message is clear: This is an exclusive club. Belonging is a privilege and an honor.  Attendance at meetings is required. Standards are high.  

From the moment the girls join, they experience Ms. K’s specific demands.  They must wear their uniforms to B. a. B. meetings: for elementary and middle school girls a navy skirt, white short-sleeved blouse, black socks, purple scarf and purple hair ribbon, all supplied at the beginning of the school year. High school girls swap stockings for socks, a pencil skirt for the full skirt, and a neck tie for the scarf.  Everyone also has a purple B. a. B. polo shirt, which they wear on Fridays (or another day of the club’s choosing) and for B. a. B. outings

“The uniform teaches responsibility.  They are responsible for all the pieces of the uniform and for wearing it correctly. Why isn’t your shirt tucked in?  Why isn’t your scarf tied?  Where is your hair ribbon?” said Ms. K.  And, she added, they’re not allowed to wear pants.

“The way you sit in a skirt and the way you carry yourself in a skirt is quite different than when you’re in pants. The days they dress up and feel pretty, it makes you feel good about yourself and you carry yourself differently, you feel different.  Just knowing there are different attires for different occasions. We try to teach something with everything we do.”

The girls, who see the uniforms as a symbol of status, wear them with pride.  One third grader spoke for many when she said, “It’s hot and itchy but it makes you look pretty. I like it.”

With the uniform, the girls also get a purple bag containing a mirror and a hygiene kit including a bar of soap, a wash cloth and deodorant. They are told to keep this kit in their book bags for an emergency “so that throughout the day you keep up with your appearance, you keep up with yourself,” said Ms. K, who takes the opportunity to teach her girls what many should but do not learn at home.

“A lot of our parents are working parents. A lot of our parents don’t have time. A lot of our parents are young parents, and they just don’t have the time to teach those basics. So here’s a program that takes us back to the basics. We sit at the table properly. We walk, we don’t drag our feet, we address people accordingly, things like that,” she added.

Appearance and behavior that are honed in the club are expected and reinforced throughout the day.  Teachers, security guards, cafeteria workers, even custodians stop a girl behaving inappropriately and admonish, “Aren’t you in B. a. B.?  Isn’t that bad behavior?”   As everyone in the school networks together to reinforce the message of the club, the girls see a consistency to the expectations, and over time complaints about their behavior diminish.

Good behavior gets a boost from the girls’ growing self-esteem and self-confidence. Recognizing their beauty inside and out is a major focus. Every meeting begins and ends with chants that reinforce a strong sense of self:

When I look in the mirror what do I see
Someone special, me.

Building self-appreciation was the purpose of the Valentine’s Day program, when the girls anonymously wrote down what they liked about each other.  Later the girls read aloud the nice things that had been said about them and celebrated their good feelings with Valentine’s treats.

Strengthening self-confidence is the intent behind the club’s big sister, little sister concept. Everyone in elementary school, middle school and high school is paired with an older member of her club.  When an elementary school student gets to the middle school, there is at least one older person whom she knows. The same goes for the middle schooler moving up to high school.  Knowing this one person helps her feel secure and important in a large, foreign-feeling place. This year, when all the clubs got together for occasional field trips, elementary school students also got a big sister in high school and had the opportunity to hang out with her.  
Processional for the Middle and high school students entering the Presentation Luncheon.  This is the culmination of the club's year, where each group showcases an original song, poem or dance.   iddle and high school members enter the event.
Enhancing the students’ education is also central to the club.  Each week, the meeting focuses on a specific subject: the environment, money management, bullying and cyberbullying, abstinence and age-appropriate sex education, giving back, and more. Ms. K emphasizes sharp, critical thinking.  When a student offering an opinion or answering a question is not clear, Ms. K challenges the statement forcing the student to explain, clarify or admit she doesn’t know.   Ms. K also puts a premium on classroom performance. Students know that if their grades are poor they will be placed on 4-week probation, during which they must still come to meetings but cannot participate in field trips or other special events.  Ms. K reviews every student’s progress reports, meets with parents as needed, tries to find tutors for those who would benefit. At present, she is seeking funding specifically to underwrite tutoring.

All of this consistent effort produces enormous growth in the girls at every level. Shy girls, loners, and those with low self-esteem find a place to fit in.  Having “sisters,” being in a group where they belong, feeling included all help the girls to improve.   Although this growth is a work in progress – uniform blouses are sometimes rumpled; being rude to teachers is a perennial problem at every level --  growth is palpable.  In elementary school, giggly, immature behavior gives way to an affect of calm and discipline.  In middle school, improvement in hygiene is significant; also noticeably better are behavior and self-confidence.  In high school, the girls learn to keep a surly attitude in check, to show deference to their teachers and other adults, and to stay on track academically.

B. a. B. began four years ago with 40 eighth graders. This year they are high school seniors.  Although all did not remain in the club throughout, all are graduating.  One of the girls had a baby and is working but still managed to graduate on time.  And all are going to college. 

B. a. B. is a project of Communities in Schools, an organization that brings community resources into public schools.  Ms. K launched the after-school club at JFK Middle School in 2011. With the support of Communities in Schools, a second group leader placed the club in Miami Senior High School in 2012. Today, with the addition of two volunteer group leaders, six schools participate, each with 25-40 girls meeting for one hour once a week throughout the school year. The program operates in two elementary, two middle and two high schools in some of the poorest sections of Miami. 
B. a. B. girls from Biscayne Gardens Elementary perform "Say Yes" at the Presentation Luncheon May 29, 2015
The club runs on a shoestring budget.  Salaries of the two paid group leaders are underwritten by Community in Schools.  In addition, a $5,000 grant from the Women’s Fund of Miami Dade covers snacks, field trip expenses, and cost of the end-of-year Presentation Luncheon.  Supplies for weekly meetings and incidentals are provided by the participating schools, by Communities in Schools and by parents and Ms. K herself.  Students are asked to pay $40 for their uniforms, and scholarships subsidize those who cannot afford it.  Each student also pays $1.00 at each meeting, in part as a gesture of commitment, in part to help pay for on-site activities such as birthday celebrations.

Brains and Beauty Girls Club

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Glory House: Restoring Survivors of Human Sex Trafficking to Wholeness

Melissa was 16 and on her way to McDonalds when another teen approached her and invited her to a party.  Sure, Melissa said, and the girl led her to her “boyfriend’s” car.  He was no “boyfriend,” however, and when Melissa entered that car, she climbed into a trap of sexual exploitation that would keep her enslaved for ten years.

Melissa was one of over 100,000 girls, average age 14, lured into human sex trafficking in the United States every year.  Like Melissa, they are forced to have sex as often as 20- 48 times a day. (Source: Polaris Project)  Governed by fear and intimidation, they lose the ability to trust.  They traverse adolescence, and possibly early womanhood as well, deprived of normal social interaction and any semblance of self-determination. They are robbed of schooling and the ability to learn everyday life skills. As Melissa put it, “ I didn't know anything that had to do with the real world, like paying bills or saving money or how to go back to school or how to manage time.  Things that people would think are just so normal. But for me they weren't normal at all. I actually had to learn them.”

And so Melissa has come to Glory House, a healing environment in Miami, Florida,  where 18-25-year-old female survivors of sex trafficking can become wholly restored. They come referred from sex trafficking rescue organizations such as There is Hope for Me and the Life of Freedom Center and from Miami-Dade County's Coordinated Victim Assistance Center.  Through Glory House, which is partially modeled on Wellspring Living in Atlanta, they receive all the care and services they need to recover physically, emotionally and spiritually. 

Executive Director Betty Lara explains: “The abuse has been so severe -- some of the women had been taken when they were 13 years old – that it was a whole chunk of their lives.  Five or six years. They need therapy. Massive. A lot of therapy.”

And so they receive individual and group therapy.  They receive dental care and the care of a physician for sexually transmitted diseases, screening for HIV/AIDS, and routine medical checkups. They earn their GED and acquire the job skills they need to be self-sufficient. They establish a vocation, work and save money for an apartment and other necessities when they leave. And they are offered spirituality for the hope, strength and healing that Glory House believes comes with faith.

Dominant in the concept of Glory House is mentorship, an informal one-on-one relationship between a survivor and a trained volunteer whose personalities and interests are compatible. Volunteers attend a ten-week course using the international Hands That Heal curriculum to learn about the unique needs of survivors and the challenges of this particular brand of caregiving.  Once matched with a survivor, the mentor becomes a resource for everyday advice and assistance.  The mentor takes her survivor on errands, helps her with everyday tasks like writing checks, and functions as an informal life coach, providing advice on mundane things like what clothes to wear for a given occasion to more significant questions like how to conceptualize a monthly budget.  Often a mentor will call her survivor with, say, an invitation to the mall. Over time, with repeated, steady interaction, a trusted friendship blooms.

With this multifaceted program, survivors heal, grow, and acquire the confidence they need to move forward.

Melissa’s evolution is a case in point.  Melissa’s slavery came to an end when her pimp was arrested and she found herself in jail as well.     Now 28-years-old and out of jail for two years, Melissa  has recently completed the second of four parts of her GED.  Having learned gardening through a program associated with her prison experience, Melissa  works at a nursery creating organic vegetable gardens and selling the produce at a farmers market. Financially independent, she shares an apartment with a friend and, with the help of Glory House, has been reunited with her son.

Melissa credits Glory House with providing the mentor that taught all the things that, she says, “people would think are just so normal, but for me they weren't normal at all.” But of all the components of the Glory House program, she finds the spiritual most helpful.  “It’s the only thing that got me through,” she says.   

While Christian spirituality is central to Glory House, the program welcomes women from all walks of life and offers them the freedom not to embrace Christianity. Executive Director Betty Lara is quick to emphasize that bible study and prayer circle are opportunities, not requirements.  To force religious activities on survivors, she says, is to rob them of their independence and self-determination, the very antithesis of what Glory House is all about.  And so in mentor training class, she asserts, “Don’t push anything on anyone.”

But Betty herself is a woman of enormous faith.   “Build it and they will come,” she says.  Indeed, since Glory House was founded in 2011, donated help has come from every direction:  website design, office space, accounting and legal services, grant research and grant proposal preparation, professional fundraising services.  Fundraisers are staffed by volunteers.  Event sites and refreshments are donated.  In eight months during 2014, Glory House raised $80,000. With a steady stream of fundraisers planned for 2015, the year's goal is $300-400,000.    Betty believes the organization will be given a house within a year.

The dream – the plan -- is for a secure residence (address unpublished) with  two round-the-clock caregivers and one full-time house mother as well as a dedicated psychologist. The house will accommodate up to eight residents for one to two years.  

"After meeting with other organizations that have worked in this field for years we realized that the survivors need their own room and privacy (vs. 2 to a room as originally planned) and this limits the amount of people that can be accommodated in one house. Finally, Glory House wished to maintain a home atmosphere versus an institutional one," board member Leonor Alvarez stated in an email.

Psychological help, group therapy, medical help, educational help and life coaching will be offered in-house.

At present, Glory House provides housing for four women, one in a hotel, one in an apartment and two in homeless shelters as well as mentoring for seven through community liaisons. They receive care and support through Glory House’s close partnership with the Miami-Dade County Coordinated Victim Assistance Center, which offers a wide range of services from legal assistance to yoga classes and many in between.

Glory House is a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization and runs an annual budget of $500,000 including private donations and in-kind contributions.Their only major expense is the executive director’s salary: $22,000 a year.   In addition to monetary donations, Glory House particularly needs IT assistance and liability insurance. And a house.

Glory House
PO Box 43073
South Miami, FL 33143

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Young Parents Project: Healing the Community One Family at a Time

They may come from criminal court, where they have been placed on probation for crimes as small as petty theft and as large as attempted murder.  They may come from the child welfare system because their mothers have abused, neglected or abandoned them or because they have abused, abandoned or neglected their babies.   They are as young as 12 and as old as 19. Despite the many differences among them, they all hold one thing in common: All are mothers

In addition, most have failed at school, experienced physical or sexual abuse, and/or suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health problems. And all are fortunate to participate in the Young Parents Project.

This magnificent program, based on Yale University’s Minding the Baby model, which integrates nursing, mental health and social work support for teen mothers and their children, aims to break the cycle of poverty, delinquency and teen parenthood. It began when Miami Circuit Court Judge Lester Langer launched a program to heal the mothers, help them raise well-nurtured babies, and change the destiny of young families in trouble.

It’s a tall order. The girls, who enter the program either pregnant or already parenting, rarely have had strong, positive role modeling. They don’t know how to make a business call on the telephone.  They don’t know how to deal with the person on the other end ifs he is at all negative or obstructionistic, so they have trouble making appointments and obtaining information.  Even accessing transportation is a challenge.

Worse, for many, trauma has tied one generation to the next.  Violence is often prevalent, and their communities often lack the resources to help. One participant, a 15-year-old with a two-year-old and eight months pregnant, lives in a three-bedroom home where mattresses on the floor sleep 10 – four adults and six children, four of whom are teen parents themselves. This 15-year-old needs prenatal care and an education. Her baby needs quality daycare, healthcare and immunizations. Mom needs to learn and follow good health practices for herself and her child. She needs to connect with the health and social service resources in her community.  And she must learn to understand her child’s needs and nurture him.  Then there are her mental health needs.  Like almost every other teen parent, she has a history of sexual abuse, which she must address before it affects her ability to parent and protect her child.  

“We have a chance right now, at this age, to work through many things with them,” said Barbara White, who directs the Miami program.  “This is a group of young women with possibilities and hope, and if we can work with them over time, we can make a difference.”  

However, If the girls’ problems are allowed to become more deeply seated, they will likely wind up in prison.

And so a nurse, a social worker, and an infant mental health specialist take on the young family, visiting them at home once a week for two years. The intervention aims to give mom the skills to organize her life and access needed services, new strategies for managing problems and stress, an understanding of her child’s needs, the skills to meet those needs, and a head start on processing her trauma. 

Task number one is school for mom and baby.  One in every two girls in the program is not in school at entry, and bad past behavior often makes schools reluctant to readmit her.  So the social worker advocates to get her into school, ideally one that has high quality childcare onsite or nearby.  The nurse makes sure mom and baby have a medical home – an office or clinic that quarterbacks the family’s medical care – that mom is getting routine adolescent and/or prenatal healthcare, that baby is getting regular checkups and timely immunizations, and that mom understands her medical instructions and the information on medication labels. Mom also receives help obtaining needed documentation (e.g., birth certificate) and applying for Medicaid and other needed social services.

For the first three weeks, the entire team visits together so that the teen can see the three professionals work as a team.     At the outset, she is likely to be resistant and distrusting.  Typically, the girls served by the project move frequently.  Phone servicer gets cut off and phone numbers change.  In addition, they don’t know how to act on mail they receive.  For all these reasons, the teens have commonly had bad experience with other agencies. But Young Parents is different.

Whereas other agencies give up, “we are consistent and persistent,” Barbara said in unison with Juanita Armbrister, care coordinator and team leader. They do outreach.  They give the families their cell phone numbers and make themselves available 24/7.  

Gradually, the team gains trust.  As the team visits, adults living in the household watch the interaction.  They see that the teen is relating to another adult and so perhaps there is hope for them as well.

“Definitely there is carryover,” said Barbara. “The family is watching.”

One of the most essential components of the program is dyadic intervention.  With  mom and baby on the floor together, the therapist focuses on the development of the mom, development of the baby and development of the relationship between them.  When mom was small, she likely experienced little playtime and too little nurturing communication with her own adult caregivers. In dyadic therapy she learns about play as a way of joyfully interacting with her child.  Working to “hold the baby in mind,” i.e., to think about what every life experience means to the baby, the therapy asks how things are going. She asks,  “What do you think this experience means to your baby,” and “what was that moment like for your child?” 

The therapist also talks to the mom about how she was parented and the differences between what she experienced and what she is learning.  If mom mentions an unhappy experience, the therapist asks, “What was that like for you? What do you think it would be like for your child?” Through this process, mom develops empathy and concern for the baby.  She comes to realize that almost every decision she makes will affect her baby, and so she makes good life choices:  going back to school, dealing with court issues, and getting good healthcare, to name a few.

“We believe the approach will keep the young families safer in the community because the teen begins to take on the role of the parent, identify herself as a parent, and think that her decisions make a difference for the baby,” said Barbara.  

The program is equally intensive as it helps the moms navigate their court experience.  As they transport each mom to court, they talk about the hearing, what mom can expect, how to speak respectfully to the judge, what questions she might have for the judge.  Once before the judge, the Young Parents team member stands with the teen, offering her valuable support. When the mom has trouble expressing herself, she will look to her Young Parents supporter for help.  After the hearing, the supporter helps the girl process what transpired and make sure she understands it. This support helps mom gain confidence in the court process, and as a result she is more likely to express her needs and wishes to the judge.

The Young Parents Project, under the auspices of the Florida State University Center for the Prevention and Early Intervention Policy, has been operating in Miami-Dade County since 2007.  By June 2013, the program has served approximately 200 young families.  Compared to a comparable population, pregnant teens coming through the program have had fewer babies born at low birth weight and fewer closely spaced subsequent pregnancies. While the girls who entered the program from the juvenile justice system (as opposed to the child welfare system) had as many as seven arrests prior to entering the Young Parents Project, 99% had zero arrests during their two years in the program; the University is currently tracking the status of girls who graduated.  As for those in the child welfare system, the number of teen mothers who retain or regain custody of their children has risen.

Barbara attributes success to the intervention itself.  The girls learn they can begin to trust others and they come to learn about and trust the enormous web of community services available to them. They also learn that as they become more appropriate in their behavior, they win the support of others. And they learn that with a baby and keeping the baby in mind, they can change their future.

LJ (who requested anonymity for herself and her son) is the personification of this success.  In foster care from the age of 10, she became pregnant at 14 and gave birth to her son, DJ,  at 15.   She was predictably resistant to Young Parents’ intervention at first, believing she knew everything and didn’t need any help.  But gradually she yielded, and although she has graduated from the program still calls Juanita when she needs help.  Just recently, Juanita accompanied her to look at a new daycare for DJ, and, LJ reported, asked questions LJ herself hadn’t even thought about. 

Equally important, LJ and DJ are on a solid path toward a successful future.  With Young Parents urging, they moved into Casa Valentina, supportive housing for girls aging out of foster care( See "Casa Valentina: Living, Learning, Growing," Programs That Work, February 2012).  LJ graduated from high school in June 2014, is working in a medical office, and will begin college classes in September.  At three, DJ is an articulate and engaging boy who grins broadly, hugs hard, and likes having his matchbox cars in the bathtub.

The Miami Young Parents Project is one of two sites for the Florida State program, the other being in Tallahassee. The Miami project employs two treatment teams (six professionals) who, as of June 2014, were serving 32 families throughout the vast Miami-Dade County.  The Miami office operates on a budget of approximately $500,000 a year with funding principally from the Children’s Trust, FSU, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and matching funds from the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Young Parents Project
Juvenile Justice Center
3300 NW 27 Avenue, Room 1162
Miami, FL 33142
305-638-6774 ext. 262

Sunday, June 15, 2014

HPV Awakening: One Woman’s Battle against Silence and Ignorance

Not long after 25-year-old Tashia Ameneiro became sexually active, her body began feeling out of balance. She lost weight, developed back pain and noticed her period had changed.  So she made an appointment with her gynecologist, who diagnosed a cancer-causing strain of human papilloma virus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted infection.  She was treated and although she does not need to worry about developing cervical cancer, she is furious that she was infected in the first place.

What cultural norm gave Tashia’s boyfriend, who knew he was infected and contagious, the audacity to keep this information from her? Why is ignorance about HPV so pervasive?     How can others be protected from the pain and worry that Tashia experienced?

The answer is HPV Awakening, the fledgling organization that Tashia founded in 2011 to educate others about HPV and to advocate for better public health policies regarding all sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

In schools, at health fairs, and wherever else she can get a platform, she spreads the word about HPV, a group of sexually transmitted virus strains that grow on the various soft, moist surfaces of the skin such as the tip of the penis, the cervix, and the throat.  HPV is so widespread, Tashia is quick to advise,  that almost every sexually active person will have it at some time. In most cases, it is silent, innocuous and becomes inactive within two years.  But some strains, notably HPV-6 and 11, cause non-cancerous genital warts, which can cause itching, burning, pain and emotional distress but which can be treated with medication and/or surgery. Twelve strains can develop into cancer.
HPV Awakening educates residents at The Lodge homeless shelter
In addition to education, HPV Awakening is focused on advocating for better sex education and better public health policies. Relating an incident where two middle school students were found engaged in fallatio, Tashia noted that syphilis is rampant, yet parents and teachers tend to be uncomfortable talking about sex.  Tashia says, “I’ve been in conferences where people would rather talk to you about suicide than talk to you about STDs. STDs are extremely taboo.”  

And so she pitches the merits of making screening for STDs, including HPV, a routine part of every annual check-up.  If everyone were routinely tested, she argues, the stigma surrounding testing would disappear, asymptomatic but potentially dangerous infections would be diagnosed and treated, and the spread of disease would be curtailed.

Tashia, who works full-time for an HIV/AIDS organization, is a woman on a mission.  Working on HPV Awakening only in her spare time, she put together a board and completed the paperwork to register as a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization. She arranged for the law clinic at Florida International University to prepare bylaws, articles of incorporation, and other required papers.  She recruited her mother, now retired, to do community outreach and consulted with Heather Green, who devised the HIV/AIDS curriculum for the Miami-Dade County schools.  She underwent the training for the school speakers’ bureau, got her materials approved by the school board, and began lecturing in the public schools.
HPV Awakening distributes free condoms in packets adorned with its logo
She also began appearing at health fairs. In addition to local, mainstream fairs, she staffs a table at Exotica, an annual expo of love and sex, and the Anime Festival Orlando, a celebration of Japanese cartoons and animation that attracts many teenagers.  She expanded her lecture arena, appearing at colleges and universities.  She added in-service trainings for organizations like Pridelines and the Alliance, two LGBTQ support organizations. She established a partnership with Planned Parenthood, which provides free condoms and free STD testing.  And she built a social media presence.

In the process, mainstream media interviews came her way:  local public television and CNN Spanish. Largely as a result of her Facebook page emails began arriving from all over the world: India, Philippines, Russia.  Most recently, individuals and couples have begun coming to her privately for information: How can an HPV-positive person protect his partner who is negative? What are the benefits and limitation of the HPV vaccine?[i]  Are there foods that might combat the virus? How effective are male condoms?  What do you think about female condoms? Artificial insemination?

Tashia has accomplished all this in her spare time and with virtually no money.  She does not charge for her counseling or her lectures.  She has successfully negotiated to have fees at the events where she tables reduced or eliminated.  She estimates the work contributed by the FIU law clinic is worth about $5,000.  She distributes condoms that she gets for free from the health department and Planned Parenthood. With no office and no paid staff, her only regular expenses are the HPV labels she affixes to the condom packets she distributes and the organization’s brochures, which she prints herself from her home computer.  Tashia says she plows as much money as she can into the organization and admits she needs to learn how to grow the organization and raise funds.  At present she is working to raise $400 needed to properly register her 501 (c) (3).

HPV Awakening
P.O Box 940685
Miami, FL 33194

[i] There are two approved vaccines for protection against HPV.  Six-year studies on thousands of people world over, the longest available, show the vaccines to be safe and effective with no signs of weakening at studies’ end. Gardasil and Cervarix both prevent HPV-16 and 18, which cause most but not all cervical cancers.  Gardisil, but not Ceravix, also protects against HPV-6 and -11, which are responsible for 90% of genital warts. For more information about HPV vaccination, see and

Friday, April 4, 2014

Girl Power: An Inner City Haven

How does a girl endure gangs roaming her neighborhood? Or addicts frequenting the crack house down the block? Or the drive-by shooting that killed the little boy next door? Or the dysfunction that rages within her own home?   

The answer: By coming to believe that she matters.  That she can chart the course of her own life and make a difference in the lives of others.  That whatever it is she’s going through, there’s a way to get help, a way not to give up, a way not to become a statistic.

This is the purpose and success of Girl Power, a haven for girls 11-17 in Miami’s inner city.

“I think the thing we do best is taking girls who feel that their circumstances have predetermined the outcome of their lives. We take an active role in changing their perception of who they are and where they are and helping them understand that they have a bright future,” said Thema Campbell, President and CEO.

With hopelessness expressing itself in lawlessness and Florida’s juvenile justice system the third largest in the nation, Girl Power grew out of the urgent need to quell juvenile crime.  Research had convincingly demonstrated that girls are most vulnerable to delinquency if they have a pattern of truancy, if their performance in grades 6-8 is uneven, if they have relatives who are incarcerated, and/or they have a history of gang membership, poor grades or pregnancy. With risks clearly outlined, Girl Power developed programming to improve school performance, keep girls out of the juvenile justice system, and cut back on school suspensions and truancy.
Community service is an important component of Girl Power programming
Alternative to Suspension was the first program to come on line. With numerous absences and unyielding behavior problems, scores of girls were getting suspended from school.  Barred from class, they were at home getting pregnant, going to the malls and shoplifting, getting arrested.  Clearly, suspension was causing more problems than it was solving. So in 2000, Girl Power created a place where girls could go from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., where the underlying causes of their truancy and behavior problems could be addressed, and where they would work on the academic and life skills needed for success at school.  Today, in partnership with seven inner city middle and high schools, which agree to cut the student’s suspension time in half if she participates successfully in the Alternative program, Girl Power works with 100 girls a year who have been suspended for two or more days. 

The program is built on two evidence based curricula, Reconnecting Youth and Empowering Youth.  Essentially a five-day syllabus, it helps girls understand self-esteem and improve their own self-image. It builds critical thinking skills, and it hones the girls’ abilities to read, understand what they read, write, and listen.  With bullying and fighting pervasive problems, substantial time is also spent on understanding conflict and learning how to be assertive without being aggressive. 

“The girls don’t know how to solve conflicts,” Thema said.  Indeed, 80% of girls suspended from school are suspended for fighting.

“They don’t even know what a conflict is. So you have to walk them through step by step. What is a conflict? How does it get started?  How do you resolve it? How can you come to a resolution so the conflict is over and done with? Because often these girls fight and then go back to school, and if the conflict is not solved with all the parties, it erupts again.”

Accordingly, time is set aside for “girl talk,” i.e., what happened and why they got suspended. While the girls invariably enter Alternative to Suspension believing their punishment was somebody else’s fault, by the time they’re ready to go back to school, they understand the role they played. And they have acquired some skills for redirecting their anger.

Much the same are the results for the Post Arrest Diversion program, which began in 2008 to change the life course of approximately 50 girls a year (38 this year) under age 17 arrested for non-violent crimes like shoplifting.  Like participants in Alternative to Suspension, girls in Post Arrest Diversion are sent to Girl Power, in this instance by the Department of Juvenile Justice. Like the Alternative to Suspension curriculum, the one for Post Arrest Diversion is based largely on Reconnecting Youth and its emphasis on self-esteem and conflict resolution. But this program, which runs eight weeks, is more strict and intensive. Girls can be drug tested.  They get a large dose of sex education: abstinence, pregnancy prevention and safe sexual practices.  The approach is holistic; they learn choice theory augmented by practical, down-to-earth strategies that can help them academically and through life.  There are academics, with an emphasis on literacy and with tutoring as needed.  There are work readiness skills – resume writing, securing money for college and travel, applying academics to the work environment, manners, posture, all the things that make a person ready to get a job and keep a job.  There are health and wellness – nutrition, stress reduction, yoga and therapeutic art.  The program aims to build character and citizenship by helping the girls build their sense of self-worth. And the program satisfies the requirement for community service with opportunities at Girl Power for taking inventory, helping with projects, and assisting staff in other ways.
Younger girls completing Alternative to Suspension and Post Arrest Diversion are encouraged to join the After School program, where creativity is nurtured.  In one project, the girls fashioned African dress.

Family and individual counseling, which is required by the Department of Juvenile Justice for Post Arrest Diversion, is central to both programs. Indeed, it is integral to every program Girl Power offers. Staff knows that most girls who act out, especially those who get into fights, are exhibiting symptoms of a bigger problem being overlooked. Thema estimates that abuse, sexual abuse or neglect is an underlying factor 90% of the time. Accordingly, unless the parents refuse, every girl who walks through Girl Power’s doors has one counseling session to pinpoint problems and determine whether and what kind of counseling is needed. Individual, group and family counseling is then provided at no cost to participants by a partnership with Community Counseling Services of Greater Miami.  

In 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, 43 girls successfully completed Post Arrest Diversion. In other words, they attended consistently and completed all requirements.  Of these 43, not one was rearrested. 

Results for Alternatives to Suspension are equally impressive.  Cynthia Valdez, who teaches the program and follows up with the participants’ schools, knows of only one girl who was suspended again after completing Alternatives to Suspension. She therefore estimates success at 95%.   Parent and participant surveys reveal that the majority see improved relationships with family, less defiance, better grades.  Thema reports that school personnel frequently ask, “What do you do with this child? She’s a changed girl.”

In addition to Alternatives to Suspension and Post Arrest Diversion, Girl Power offers an after-school education and enrichment program for an estimated 200 middle school girls, mentoring program for older girls, a girls’ choir for 11-17-year-olds, and a fun-filled 7-8 week summer camp for up to 40 girls.  Girls completing Alternatives to Suspension and Post Arrest Diversion are encouraged to stay involved by joining one of the other programs, and many do.  For them, as for all who participate in Girl Power programming, the organizations offers safe harbor amid the turbulent waters of home and neighborhood.

Girl Power, loosely associated with World Literacy Crusade of Florida, employs six full-time and one part-time staff plus one public ally employee.  Budget, which comes principally from public and private grants, is $437,000 exclusive of in-kind contributions, namely counseling provided by Community Counseling Services and art instruction, which is provided by PAMM.

Girl Power
6015 NW 7th Avenue
Miami, FL 33127
T: 305-756-7374