A 21st Century Journalism Project

Breaking a Vicious Cycle

In Organizations on April 4, 2012 at 12:54 pm


Angel is an 18 year old African American female. Though she is not considered “at risk,” the community in which she lives is considered high risk for poverty and crime. Angel lives in a single parent style household, but neither her mother nor her father are the one’s raising her. Instead her grandmother works 3pm-11pm to pay the bills and is her sole provider. School ends for Angel by 3 pm. Her grandmother is away at work and Angel is on her own.

She has choices to make. She can easily be influenced by the individuals consumed by the poverty stricken community. She can go out, engage in dangerous activities such as drinking alcohol, doing drugs, or becoming sexually active, eventually becoming pregnant, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Or she can become involved in enrichment programs that can help her with school work, self-development, and prepare and help her go on to college. Angel represents one of thousands of impoverished girls across America. For every Angel, there are hundreds of choices she can make to break  the cycle of poverty.

Gwendolyn J. Elliot founded Gwen's Girls in 2002. She passed away of cancer in 2007. (Photo provided by Google Images)

There are many non-profit, educational and enrichment programs/agencies for girls like Angel to get involved with. Gwen’s Girls is a program founded by Gwendolyn J. Elliott, the first  female and former police commander for the city of Pittsburgh. Elliott began the program in the summer of 2002 with a mission to “inspire new destiny” for at risk youth, females in particular.

Gwen’s Girls is a year round program which caters to females between the ages of eight and eighteen and serves as an after school educational program where youth come to get academic support and tools to become self-sufficient young adults. “Education is the number one goal for our girls here,” says Allison Boyle, Coordinator of Volunteer Services at Gwen’s Girls. Gwen’s focuses on helping its girls improve their grades by providing mentors to work with them, along with career and college exploration services.

“A lot of Gwen’s Girls come from families with a history of neglect and abuse,” said Boyle. These girls are raised in single parent households or by their grandmothers. Some of the girls have never known their parents at all and were raised in foster care. A lot of the girls experienced physical, sexual, and mental abuse in their lives; many of the girls are parenting teens.

“When you live in a community that’s considered to be high risk for violence and crime, you need agencies like Gwen’s Girls to be a vital part of their everyday lives,” Boyle said.

In addition to the educational support that Gwen’s provide,  Gwen’s also provides prevention programs, residential programs, and even a foster care program for teens in need.

According to Theresa Capra, professor at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, today’s youth “live in households where no one has experienced higher education or even finished high school.”  The lower income, poverty stricken, at risk youth are the ones ultimately paying the price for their education. In the state of Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett’s budget cuts for the commonwealth have risen since last year and will continue to rise.

Governor Corbett's proposed budget cuts continue to take a toll on public schools all across Pennsylvania.
(Photo provided by Google Images)

In 2011 there was an $8.7 million deficit, in 2012 the deficit has risen to $53.6 million and will rise to $100 million by 2015.  As the Pennsylvania education budget continues to decline, so has the poverty rate for its children increased from 15 percent in 2000 to 19 percent by 2010. It continues to rise.

The recent budget cuts have affected public schools and the non-profit organizations that work closely with public schools such as Gwen’s Girls. Gwen’s Girls serves 65 adolescent females in the Pittsburgh region. Fifteen of these girls were released from the agency this past year due to lack of budget. “All of the females had to be reviewed,” said Boyle. “If some were receiving multiple services other than Gwen’s Girls, they were removed from the program. It’s really unfortunate,” Boyle continues. Almost 100% of Gwen’s clients are poverty stricken, “But it doesn’t mean people aren’t working,” Boyle adds.

Being poverty stricken can have a large impact on the personal and social development of an adolescent. A lot of the girls were born to parents who were addicted to drugs and alcohol, resulting in developmental delays at birth. Being born a victim of chemical dependency coupled with being brought up in an at risk neighborhood adds to the issue of poverty. Often times these young women only have the education provided to them through their public schooling which does not offer the same quality education a child with a more affluent upbringing may receive. “When you don’t have a lot of education around you, if you can’t speak up for yourself and make the right decisions on your own, even as a child, it’s hard to get out of the rut. It’s like a vicious cycle,” Boyle explains.

With help from programs such as Gwen’s Girls, young women who are considered as being at risk are breaking the cycle in its entirety, not even budget cuts can stop these young women from moving towards a brighter future. One young woman who attended Gwen’s had been raised in foster care from birth, and was kicked out from her home at age 18. With the help of Gwen’s Girls, she was able to apply for college and was accepted. She is one of the first of Gwen’s Girls accepted to a four year college. Since she has gone to college, a number of Gwen’s Girls have been accepted to college. “A bunch of girl’s go on from here,” Boyle said.

Within the past year, Gwen’s Girls have done much to improve the lives of at risk females. 100 percent of its clients graduate from high school. 50 percent go on to pursue post-secondary education. 94 percent do not become re-involved in the juvenile justice system. 95 percent of girls do not become pregnant; and those who had been pregnant once be it a mistake or otherwise, do not become pregnant a second time. It is Gwen’s Girls mission to inspire young women to become self-sufficient and break the cycle of poverty and welfare. “We might not do this for all the girls, but if we can do that for a portion of them, I think that’s good enough,” Boyle said.

Almost fifteen million children in the United States are victims of poverty. Many are being raised in unstable living environments and at risk communities. America’s poverty stricken youth do not choose to be poor, but they all have the choice to break that cycle. If having an education is one of the most beneficial choices at risk youth can make in order to better their lives, their socioeconomic status should not stand in the way of that. As Theresa Capra explains, “America must acknowledge that education is a public necessity; not a luxury for the privileged.”

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