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“Over time we've mastered the art of establishing relationships that support girls and building trust to allow them to say what they truly think. In having that safe space, they transform their own lives.”
Gerry Howze
Executive Director

When the circle forms, the girls – some shy and quiet, others strong but guarded – begin to talk about their lives. In this sacred space, there is no fear of judgment or criticism.

Each girl takes a turn articulating how the PEARLS for Teen Girls program has impacted their perception of themselves and others. While not necessarily eager, neither are they reticent to share, just accepting and at ease. These are their sisters.

Massiah Photo by Erica Baker

“PEARLS is about is helping you become a better version of yourself,” says PEARLS participant Massiah. “You can legit share everything that you're going through, and people will be so understanding.”

For Briana, PEARLS means happiness. “Because I get away from my siblings,” she half-jokes, but then goes on to describe the deeper bond she has forged with the other girls in group. “We talk to each other daily, and it helps with a lot of situations.”

“PEARLS is about change,” adds her twin sister Ariana. “There are goals there … you have that one person who's going to come and check on you, you barely know them, but you have to communicate with them so they can check on you and see how you're doing.”

Each girl’s description of the organization is different, but accurate – a reflection of its many facets. PEARLS for Teen Girls provides leadership development for middle and high school girls in Milwaukee. But at its core, PEARLS empowers young girls to believe in themselves, overcome their circumstances, and contribute to the world in a positive way.

Teenage girls often join PEARLS in search of support, friendship, or even fun, but ultimately they discover a sisterhood – ties that last a lifetime. Each meeting begins with the PEARLS promise:

P is for Personal Responsibility. I can make a difference. E is for Empathy. I will strive to understand how it feels to walk in your shoes. A is for Awareness. I want to know more about myself and the world around me. R is for Respect. I will value you and your opinions, even if we disagree. L is for Leadership. I want to put my beliefs into action and make this world a better place. S is for Support. I want to help and encourage.


Activities are centered around these values and reinforced through the practice of goal-setting. The girls explain how it works. A goal has to be SMART: “specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, tangible,” they rattle off. Then you set some smaller goals – a plan for how you will achieve your goal. And of course, there are the check-ins. Program coordinators provide accountability, following up to see how each girl is doing. They communicate with teachers and parents to make sure the girls stay on track.

In the simple repetition of this act, girls develop perseverance, grit, and strength. They look back and see what they have achieved, building confidence to tackle harder tasks around the corner, and learn a valuable life lesson: confidence comes on the other side of adversity.

Photo by Erica Baker

Omariyah pulls out her phone to show a list of daily reminders, each a different color. She explains that they keep her focused and on track and recites: “Remember I want to be a great person today … I’m one step closer to college … A lawyer, here you come."

A Safe Space

Clothed in bright colors and an expressive smile, Executive Director Gerry Howze embodies the first tenet of the PEARLS curriculum – love myself – or “be who you be,” the Gerry paraphrase.

Photo by Erica Baker

She goes on to outline the other points of their curriculum's Leadership Compass: building relationship with others, striving to achieve, believing the sky is the limit, and helping hands in the community.

"We all have responsibility to give back. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."
Gerry Howze
Executive Director

The impact of this message is tangible and effective: Statistics over the last ten years show that 99% of the teenage girls served have avoided pregnancy; 96% have graduated high school; and 96% are on track for post-secondary success.

But these statistics are also people – strong girls who go on to become bold leaders. “They have evolved and grown into these very capable smart women who have changed the trajectory of generational cycles for their families and are creating new destinies for their children.”

Gerry explains that the challenges the girls face are many and varied. “[They] range from how they view themselves and their own self-concept to anger issues, poor relationships [or] issues that they deal with because of poverty.” Some girls have never seen a family member go to college; others wonder if they will graduate high school. Some have future aspirations, but no plan for how to accomplish their goals.

“I wish there was something like this when I was a girl,” says Gerry. “A lot of what they master so young, I didn't until my ‘40s.”

"Many of the girls come out of extremely challenging circumstances, but they rise above all of that, gain confidence, and find their true selves at PEARLS."
Christie Krugler
Board Chair

LaChrissa Spriggs is Dean of King's Academy, a partner school where PEARLS hosts weekly group meetings. "We are fighting against what the media and the world is telling our girls – who they need to be and what they need to look like. It affects their school performance. It affects their academics and their life choices."

Ms. Spriggs sees the day-in, day-out need for an alternative voice -- one that coaches the girls to be confident in themselves. “Girls need to know that they have people they can talk to, that they have people who are here to help them."

Middle and high school is a very vulnerable time. "Girls face a lot of pressure,” says Ms. Spriggs. “They are going through puberty, finding out who they are, they may have some issues at home that they bring to school. They need an outlet."

PEARLS ’ weekly group meetings are exactly that -- an outlet where girls have a safe space, an open forum where they can express their fears, concerns, and issues they deal with both at home and at school.

Jasmine is the facilitator for the group at King's Academy. She partners with the teachers and administration to communicate and serves as an outside voice to encourage the girls.

"To have someone who the girls really respect is invaluable," says Ms. Spriggs. "They see someone they can trust, and it gives that other outlet."

Jasmine Photo by Erica Baker

“I tell my girls all the time, your canvas is perfect just the way it is,” says Jasmine. “Let everybody know that you're fine with your canvas. Your mind is powerful, you are enough, and let that be that.”

Jasmine admits that she doesn’t always have answers for the girls, and that’s okay. “Oftentimes silence is the best tool. You give them the time and space to work it out themselves, and they will.”

Empowered to Lead

Massiah and Ms. Jenny sit close together, researching potential opportunities for Massiah’s volunteer hours.

Ms. Jenny and Massiah together at computer. Photo by Erica Baker

“I have a goal to get at least 25 hours this school year of community service,” explains Massiah.

Massiah spends part of her spring break in the PEARLS office working on her community service project. “Going out and doing community service… makes me feel really proud of myself, in a way I haven't before,” she says.

Just a freshman at Audobon Technology and Communication High School, Massiah carries herself with the poise of a young professional. She has already spent time volunteering at the local women’s center, painting the walls at her school, and of course, helping out around the PEARLS office.

Photo by Erica Baker

It’s hard to imagine this composed and articulate young girl as shy, but she admits that before her time with PEARLS, she struggled with self-confidence.

“I wasn't a social person,” she says. “I didn't really like to talk to people like that. But PEARLS helped me be more open with myself and people around me.”

Ms. Jenny Photo by Erica Baker

Ms. Jenny helps facilitate the group Massiah attends and emphasizes that the change in this 14-year-old runs far deeper than social ease. She has stepped up as a leader. “We can expect to see Massiah getting the girls to be quiet so we can start. Or she’ll ask ‘Ms. Jenny, how can I help?’”

Massiah describes herself as an okay student before joining PEARLS, but then admits, “I saw myself going down a path I shouldn’t be.” All that has changed since joining PEARLS. Her grades have improved, and she works hard in school. But the real transformation isn’t seen in As or Bs, rather in the motivation and determination behind those grades. She loves attending group meetings, her curious mind eager to learn, and to be her best self.

“Each and every activity has a lesson or a deeper meaning, and it helps with different skills, and friendship building. It helps you to control your emotions and also be honest with yourself about your emotions,” says Massiah.

“We don't prescribe for girls what they need to become their best selves. We just provide a safe space for them to do that work for themselves, and support them through the process.”
Gerry Howze
Executive Director

Ms. Jenny plans lessons, activities and a check-in question for each group meeting, but also emphasizes that she is merely a facilitator. Each group is girl-led. This is the lynchpin of the program’s success and what sets it apart from other organizations.

Photo by Erica Baker

Inherent in the philosophy since its inception, even the PEARLS name and its corresponding set of values (PEARLS is an acronym for these values) was developed by the original cast of participants.

“As girls experience the curriculum, the facilitator team has the creative ability to fine tune programming based on the needs of girls and each of those five areas,” explains Gerry. Each team must learn what issues are relevant to the girls and tailor each lesson to the group’s priorities. “It helps drive what the experience is for the whole group,” she says.

Massiah remembers a time when there was some drama in her group. She proposed an idea: “What if each girl is assigned a PEARLS sister to look after? Two girls would be responsible for each other.” The once-shy girl smiles as she says, “That was my idea, and it had a big impact, and I feel so proud knowing it helped so much.”

Interrupting the Cycle

From the outset, PEARLS was designed to set girls on a path towards a positive future. Each group meeting is facilitated by an adult Program Coordinator and high school or college-age Junior Program Coordinator (oftentimes a PEARLS participant herself). This inter-generational model ensures that girls always see one step ahead of them: role models graduating high school, going off to college, staying focused on their education and giving back to their communities.

Austiana remembers watching the girls ahead of her graduate and get scholarships, thinking, “That's going to be me. I can do it.”

As the oldest of five children raised by a single mother, Austiana Jackson had serious responsibilities from a young age. “We were poor,” she says. “My mom worked a lot. I cared for my siblings while my mom was working.”

Photo by Erica Baker

Growing up in Milwaukee’s zip code 53206, the most incarcerated zip code in the country, future opportunities for girls like Austiana feel limited. “College was never really spoken about in my family,” she says. “I always had the grades,” she continues, “but my mom was a single parent and didn't have her high school diploma… she couldn't support me in certain areas I needed help in.”

While many teens in the nearby suburbs were busy building college-ready resumes with well-rounded extra-curricular activities, Austiana focused on helping support her family. And she is quick to point out that other girls had it worse than her. In zip code 53206, Austiana’s experience is more the norm than the exception. Nearly 50% of residents live in poverty, and 60% of men under age 34 have spent time in prison. Absentee fathers, teenage mothers, low-incomes, and lack of educational opportunity all go hand in hand.

This is the context in which Austiana Jackson was born and raised. One that taught her dreaming about the future is a luxury – something she could not afford. That is, until she experienced PEARLS for Teen Girls.

Photo by Erica Baker

With the help of this supportive community, Austiana overcame the odds. She worked hard and graduated, top five in her class, with a scholarship to Marquette University. But, just one year after starting college, life threw Austiana a curveball when her mom was incarcerated.

“I had to take all of my siblings, and move into a one-bedroom apartment on campus,” recalls Austiana.

“So not only am I in college starting my sophomore year, I have to figure out how to get [my four siblings] enrolled in school. We're all sleeping on an air mattress. We're all in one apartment. It was hectic.”

Photo by Erica Baker

Executive Director Gerry Houze remembers the day Austiana came to her and said, “I'm going to have to drop out of school. I'm not going to be able to do it.”

Gerry was quick to respond: “That's a lie. We will work this out.”

"I hit a breaking point," explains Austiana. "I was in disbelief. I didn't have any motivation to move forward. But then as I talked to my support system, as I got advice, and as I heard people say, ‘you can do this, you got this,’ from PEARLS and from school, that motivated me to keep going.”

Photo by Erica Baker

Her determination to finish school paid off. “Four years later,” says Gerry, “that girl graduated with two degrees from Marquette, which is no simple feat, and a 3.6 GPA. She just bought a house last year, while her mom is still in prison.”

Austiana is quick to credit PEARLS. “Without that support system, I probably wouldn't ever have graduated from Marquette,” says Austiana. “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

One Thousand Fold

PEARLS for Teen Girls partners with other organizations, schools, and corporations to provide a well-rounded range of opportunities. Leading field trips, college tours, job fairs and community service projects are just a few of the ways that PEARLS seeks to expand access and broaden awareness.

Several of the girls bring up Money Coach at Secure Futures – a partner program that provides budgeting, banking and financial literacy training to the girls. It teaches them the basics of how to save, understand credit and make wise financial choices. The girls leave the program realizing that they are not only strong and socially capable, but can also be financially responsible.

These tools help set girls on a path towards college and a career. “We try to figure out innovative ways to expose them to new opportunities, but also have them connect with people who are doing what they're interested in doing.”

Juniors and seniors in high school are also given the option of a coach to help support them through the college application process. This was the case for Essence, a bright and determined young girl who became the first person in her family to graduate high school, let alone enroll in college.

Essence meeting with her mentor, Carrie Photo by Erica Baker

Essence took three buses to get to school every day, worked hard, and graduated valedictorian of her class, but after getting pregnant, she wasn’t sure college was an option for her.

Through PEARLS for Teen Girls, the then-18-year-old was matched with Carrie, a former dental hygienist turned marketing sales executive, who helped her navigate the college application process.

“Every time we met,” says Carrie, “we left with a to-do list. It wasn't very long, but I'd say, ‘Okay, what do we want to get accomplished before we see each other the next time?’ That kept her motivated.”

Photo by Erica Baker

Essence says Carrie kept her going. “She would keep telling me, ‘You are strong.’” Together, they filled out FAFSA forms, submitted applications, and lined up childcare. In the fall of 2018, Essence delivered a baby boy named Princeton and that very same month, she started college – something that previously seemed out of reach.

“A lot of people would have fallen apart and said, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this,’” Carrie points out. She pauses to retrieve Princeton’s bottle from the floor. The three clearly share a close bond – the sort of family connection that is typical for PEARLS.

Photo by Erica Baker

“You never realize what an effect you have on someone's life,” says Carrie. “Essence wrote me this wonderful letter one day about how much she appreciated everything that I did. It was like, ‘I did this? I just thought I was picking you up and having a coffee.’”

“I don't feel like I have really done anything,” continues Carrie. “Anybody could say, ‘You should, you should, you should.’ But it's that person who has to motivate themself to do it.”

Women like Carrie are eager to get involved because as Gerry says, “the return on the investment that they make in a girl will come back a thousand fold.”

Gerry echoes this sentiment: “They always say, ‘thank you for believing.’ I tell them, ‘I didn't do anything. You did the work.’ I literally would not be here if it were not for them.”

But that believing makes all the difference. For Essence, for Austiana, for Massiah and for the thousands of girls who have been a part of the PEARLS community.

Photo by Erica Baker

Gerry discusses the organizations’ hopes to expand throughout Milwaukee and beyond, to grow the program so that it can reach girls everywhere. Partnering with Stand Together Foundation has given Gerry the confidence and leadership skills to work towards this next step:

“That's when the magic started happening… What we got was a wonderful tool that served as a catalyst for bringing alignment and agreement with board and staff on who we are, what we do... and to consider what growth can look like for the organization."
Gerry Howze
Executive Director

But what is the real ‘sky is the limit’ dream? “Ultimately, I would like PEARLS to be run by PEARLS girls,” says Gerry. “That would be awesome. I've had a few tell me, ‘I want your job.’ I’m like, ‘Okay. Come on. When you are ready, I will pave the way.’”

Amanda Lahr-profile

Written by Amanda Lahr

Writer

Erica Baker Photography

Photography by Erica Baker

Photographer

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