EBONY: A SNEAKERS SUCCESS STORY
Ten years ago, Ebony was an eighth grader who joined SNEAKERS looking for answers to her questions about the changes taking place in her body and life. Today, she is “giving back” as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia.
According to Ebony, “The confidence I gained in SNEAKERS has helped me in all that I do now. I lived in Zambia serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in health education in rural communities. My project focused on the empowerment of women and girls. I worked with my community to increase literacy among adult women, improve health care for pregnant women and children, and empower young girls to make positive choices regarding sex and education.”
“Starting in the eighth grade and continuing through high school, the SNEAKERS program could not have come at a better time. During those years, life was hard to understand. We were all trying to learn who we were and to embrace and love ourselves. Participants in our group represented a variety of backgrounds and life circumstances. We learned to care for and be considerate of one another as we demystified the stories we heard about relationships, sex and being a teenage girl. SNEAKERS was the place where, with the support of a caring, non-judgmental adult, we could talk about that and get real answers and suggestions on how to handle life. We learned to be loving, responsible, reliable, confident women who make healthy life choices and have a network of friends who will see us through the hard times.”
MELISSA: A SNEAKERS SUCCESS STORY
When Melissa was invited to join a SNEAKERS group, she was an 8th grader at Gaithersburg Middle School. She joined because she was drawn to the idea of a group “just for girls.” Through SNEAKERS, she found a place where she could “say anything” and always “get good advice.” In her group, the girls “not only talked about college, but problems you could be facing in your life.” Happily, when she moved to the 9th grade at Gaithersburg High School, Melissa was able to join a SNEAKERS group for 9th grade girls, and she remained in the program until she graduated in June 2015.
Over time, SNEAKERS became what she called her “backbone” because “girls can rely on SNEAKERS for school help, relationship help, and basically anything.” Most importantly, her experiences in SNEAKERS profoundly changed how Melissa viewed herself and her future. Like all of us, especially in our teen years, Melissa’s beliefs about herself were influenced by the broader society in which we live. For girls of color, the prevailing prejudices and stereotypes can have a profoundly negative impact.
Here is how Melissa put it,
“[SNEAKERS] helps Latinas like me see the world differently and have hope because being a Latina is hard. Most people think that I’ll drop out of school and have a baby at age 15. It’s hard to try with all these negative concepts around me, but being in this program has helped me see that it’s not like that and I can be something in my life.”
In SNEAKERS, Melissa says that she learned “good communication skills,” “to make better and wiser decisions,” and “to be open-minded and accept others’ differences.” The one experience she said she would “never forget” was an overnight college trip because “not only was the trip fun, but it also opened my eyes to an opportunity I had never considered.”
In a 2014 interview, 11th grade Melissa had this to say about SNEAKERS’ impact on how she saw her future:
“Before SNEAKERS, I wasn’t sure if I could go to college. If I was smart enough to get the grades for it. SNEAKERS ended my doubts! It showed me that if you really want to go to college, you can do it. I see going to college in my future.”
And in 2016, she did just that. Melissa is now enrolled part-time at Montgomery College and plans to attend full-time in the fall of 2016. She is currently working towards an associate’s degree in special education and then plans to transfer to the University of Maryland to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“From the moment I walked into the room and saw Ms. Deb, the PEARLS program leader, I felt a lot better. I didn’t feel she was judging me. The minute my favorite teachers found out that I was pregnant or that I had a child, their point of view completely changed. A lot of people thought I was just a failure. A lot of people said I wasn’t going to graduate from high school. With PEARLS, dropping out of school wasn’t an option for me. Ms. Deb said ‘no, you’re going to be in school. ’And so I said, ‘I can do it’ because I know I have the support system here.”
“PEARLS made me stronger. It made me more mature. It made me more accepting of others and myself. It taught me that it’s okay to be able to stand up on my own two feet—to be the independent person that I’ve always tried to be, but still accept help.”
“And so, I can say I am a product of PEARLS.”
Suzanne will graduate from the University of Maryland in May 2013 and then go to law school. She is also the mother of a happy, healthy, smart daughter.
“I was 15 when I got pregnant. I didn’t even know how to change a diaper and now here I was having a baby. I was scared and confused out of my mind: what would become of me? I had a rough pregnancy; I was always sick and depressed. My baby was born premature and only weighed 4lbs. 11oz. I cried every time I had to enter the NICU. It made matters worse for me to hear things such as ‘What is this little girl doing having a baby?’ You just learn to ignore people.”
“I give much credit to the PEARLS program for helping me become the lady that I am today. Before I was in PEARLS, my self-esteem was very low; but the help and support I received has made me come a long way from that point. I am very grateful for this program because I’ve gained so much knowledge about relationships, discipline, and, most importantly, life itself. I’ve learned to have a positive outlook on life no matter how bad it gets. I celebrated my son’s second birthday the same day as my high school graduation. It was a special coincidence with a great meaning behind it: this was meant to happen. It proved to me that, yes, I am strong, determined young woman who can overcome anything that comes my way.”
Jennifer has graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in cyber-security at the University of Maryland University College.