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'Sisters of the Heart' program targets troubled teen girls

'Sisters of the Heart' program targets troubled teen girls

By Nicole Sterghos Brochu
Staff Writer

July 5, 2001

When it began in Miami two years ago, it was meant as a mentoring program to introduce wayward girls to culture, female role models, and a life of hope and promise.

It was all the inspiration some girls needed to pull themselves up from a delinquent past, ditch their dead-end friends and work toward a goal they never before considered: college.

Now, inspired by what has been lauded as an ambitious, effective and one-of-a-kind program for girls, a Palm Beach County judge has taken steps to begin a similar effort here.

Called "Sisters of the Heart," the program would target girls ages 13 to 17 who either have been expelled from school for behavioral problems or have been to court for a juvenile crime.

The girls, all students at local alternative schools, are not serious criminals but teens who have committed minor crimes such as shoplifting or drug possession.

"We would be trying to turn around some of these girls that are turning down the wrong path," said Palm Beach County Judge Krista Marx, who is heading the local effort. "The goal would be to instill civility, communication and respect for the law so they can become responsible members of the community."

The plan is a simple one: Inundate them with positive influences from cultural experiences to successful role models, and hope for the best.

A large component would involve the court system. Once a month, the girls would attend domestic-violence hearings to learn the consequence of such crimes, take anger management classes to learn how to curb violent tendencies, and sit in on mediation exercises to see how to negotiate peaceful and meaningful resolutions to problems.

The girls would also experience the ballet, theater and other cultural influences -- outings that many might not have taken before.

And "power lunches" with influential women -- legislators, lawyers, business leaders, political aides and probation officers -- would introduce them to a network of role models and mentors.

The formula has been successful for the dozens of Miami-Dade County girls who have gone through the program.

"It really did offer them a much wider opportunity of experiences than I ever could," said Jennifer Schuster, director of the Troy Community Academy, whose alternative students participate in the Miami-Dade County "Sisters of the Heart" program.

"That experience of networking with women was especially wonderful," Schuster said. "I think it made them feel better about themselves, more intrinsically valuable as human beings."

For one graduate of the program, it was her mentor that made all the difference. A retired nurse, the woman gave the girl a strong shoulder to lean on and a willing ear at any time.

"Sisters of the Heart made a huge difference to me," the girl said. "It was probably the one thing that got me through" her juvenile court sentence.

The girl, now 18 and majoring in biology at Broward Community College, asked that her name not be used. She has turned her life around and doesn't want her professors or bosses at her waitress job to know about her grand theft auto convictions.

Larry B. Fair, a teacher at WINGS For Life, another alternative school in the Miami-Dade County program, said there are many examples of girls inspired by "Sisters of the Heart" to stay in school and go on to college.

"It's a very motivational program for girls, especially those with low self-esteem," he said.

Miami-Dade County Judge Bonnie L. Rippingille started the program in 1999 after noticing a lack of gender-based mentoring programs for girls.

"It gives them a sense of belonging and something to look forward to," Rippingille said. "What we're trying to do is build self-esteem."

Along the way, the girls learn how to build a resume, how to balance a checkbook and how to open a bank account.

Last year, the program won Rippingille the Volunteer of the Year award from the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Now, she said, it is time to expand the program to other communities.

Marx's effort in Palm Beach County, to get started within the next month, will serve as the pilot project for what could become a statewide venture to abate the rise in juvenile crime among girls, one of the fastest-growing criminal segments.

"It is a community problem," Rippingille said, "let's face it."

Nicole Sterghos Brochu can be reached at nbrochu@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6603.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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