Making a difference since 2009
is one of four unique, colorful sisters (she is the second to oldest) and both her mother and step-father are unemployed. She is loud, vibrant, and outspoken; however, she copes with her own insecurities and stress of not always having the means to dress or live as others by bullying her peers, oftentimes leading to physical fights.
She always greeted me with a big hug and often a comment about my hairstyle or questions about my day. The walk from Fulton to the Boys and Girls club was about a mile and a half and Zakarra would spend most of the walk talking to me and the other walkers about every topic from life, encounters with her peers, and teachers, to opinions about songs and her day at school. She would speak over her peers and would redirect the conversation back to her
Zakarra aspired to be on the reality show, “Bad Girls Club,” a show that documents the lives of women with previously involvement with the law. The women often engage in physical and verbal altercations fueled by alcohol and the lack of respect and participation in risky behavior, such as promiscuity, drive the show’s plot.
The more Zakarra attended the sessions, the more she learned about herself. I noticed that Zakarra began arguing less with the other students and she would also stop herself from acting out violently when she got upset by saying, “Ms. Marissa wants me to do better.” Zakarra was determined to be a leader in the program and her opportunity to help more and display more leadership was a direct consequence of her behavior improving. This change was also seen in her school work as she would be so excited to show me when she got a good grade or improved upon a bad one.
After 8 months of Girls Only! Zakarra no longer aspired to be on violent reality show, but rather she wanted to pursue cosmetology. The ultimate compliment was when her step dad told me that I must be working miracles in the hour he drops the girls off due to her significant change in behavior. Zakarra’s pivotal change showed when she spoke at the Girls Only Graduation and presented her final project, something she adamantly refused at the program’s start.
“Her step dad told me that I must be working miracles in the hour he drops the girls off.”
has recently identified her sexuality as lesbian and decided to cut off all her hair. She is very athletic and spends most of her time playing basketball with the boys. Her mother does not accept her sexual orientation and she often uses art and poetry as an outlet to her mother’s rejection. She is an intelligent student that thrives in leadership roles, and is an avid helper in the club.
But when Makayla is given too many boundaries, she often displays her frustration by lashing out with extreme attitude. In instances where she isn’t given the opportunity to help around the club and instead must engage with her peers in group, she will leave the group without permission or roll her eyes and talk back to staff providing instruction. In a particular instance, a 2nd grade girls mistook Makayla for a boy and Makayla responded aggressively by attacking the younger girl’s appearance, bringing the girl to tears.
The tension that Makayla would display in the club had a lot to do with her frustrations of not being accepted by her family and her peers, as she would oftentimes share with me. I invited Makayla to attend Girls Only!, but she immediately rejected the invitation by sharing that she did not fit the Girls Only! “look.”
Makayla hesitantly joined the group after I adamantly refuted her assumption and stereotype of the group, and she accepted under the condition that she would only be a “helper.” Shortly after, I was thrilled to see that she began to share in the discussions. Makayla joined the group at her own time, first by isolating herself in the back of the room and drawing, to facing the group in the corner of the classroom, to finally joining the Girls Only! circle.
Makayla broke down internal barriers which allowed her to share and engage with the rest of the girls who quickly reciprocated a friendship. She began to feel accepted and safe within the group. In a closing poem, Makayla expressed how she finally felt cared for, understood, and safe, an admission that stands in stark contrast to her previous poems where she shared feeling sad and alone.
is a shy girl and at the beginning of Girls Only! she was completely unengaged. Staff members would describe her as moody as she was often easily agitated by her peers. She had a different style and preference in music than most of the girls. She would hide behind her long hair and dress in all black. Ariana’s distance from her peers and anti-social behavior worried me.
My attempts to build a relationship were often futile as her answers were short and vague. There was a notable time when Ariana accidentally opened up to me about her father going to jail. I say accident because I did not directly ask her a personal question at the time. I had asked Ariana to ask her dad if he could be picked up later so she may participate in the program and she responded with frustration, “I don’t know how to ask him because he went to jail!”
Ariana’s unhappiness seemed to stem from things that were out of her control as a child. Not only was this the case for Ariana, this was the case for many of the girls. I committed to try my best to keep Ariana engaged and to teach things geared towards resiliency and thinking positively because like Ariana, many of the girls often had to deal with the repercussions of situations that they could not control.
During a Girls Only! activity, I allowed the girls to request songs while they worked on their crafts, when it was Ariana’s turn she choose “Hey there Delilah.” Once the song started to play, Ariana lit up and san along. In that moment, I finally saw that innocent spark of joy in Ariana.
At one of our Girls Only! sessions, the girls were asked to identify the positive things in their lives and the things they liked about themselves. To my surprise, Ariana had written that she likes that she is unique and that she loves her long hair. Ariana continued to blossom within the group, sharing her newfound confidence and optimism at each Girls Only! session.
“I don’t know how to ask him because he went to jail!”