Girl Scouts and 4-H Meet Youngsters Needs

For some Girl Scouts in Ohio, selling cookies isn't a priority. They use troop meetings to visit their moms -- in prison. And 4-H, founded at the turn of the century for farm youngsters, now involves thousands of public housing children who have never set foot on a farm.Today, traditional youth organizations are running hard to keep up with the changing needs of children."Despite the myths, Girl Scouts come from many walks of life," said Claudia Davis, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. in New York. "The diversity in our membership encompasses girls at risk, and we're always looking for ways to serve our membership."They are reaching out to children who need them most, say leaders of these efforts.One is Lakisha, 12, of Columbus, Ohio. She was 9 1/2 when her mother was sent to prison on drug-related charges.Lakisha and her two sisters were farmed out among relatives and foster homes. Lakisha rarely visited her mother. Her behavior grew erratic, and she changed foster homes twice. Then came Girl Scouts Beyond Bars. Now, as part of the program, Lakisha and her sisters visit her mother every other Tuesday at the Franklin Pre-Release Center. Just as in other Girl Scout troop meetings, mothers and daughters make crafts, play games and enjoy each other's company."We make lots of things like jewelry and masks, and we do lots of things with my mom," said Lakisha, now 12. "She likes it 'cause she gets to see us and she said she wasn't going to do any more drugs. She's going to get an apartment and try to get us back.""Plus," she added, "it's something for me to stay out of trouble."And that's precisely why this program was launched, according to its two organizational founders -- the Girl Scouts and the National Institutes of Justice. Today, Girls Scouts Beyond Bars serves about 2,000 girls who visit their mothers at 18 correctional facilities in 13 states, ranging from Florida to Arizona to California. The girls are as young as 5 and as old as 15.According to the justice institute, children with parents in prison have six times the risk of other children of eventually going to prison themselves. They are more likely to drop out of school and suffer higher rates of teen pregnancy.A year after it started, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges gave the program its Unique and Innovative Project Award.The program helps the incarcerated mothers as well as the girls, said Mary Ann Binder, who works with Girls Scouts at both the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio, and the Franklin Pre-Release Center for Women in Columbus.At both facilities, Binder noted, the mothers' behavior improved because they wanted to stay in the program to see their children."We've had a lot more correspondence between mothers and children as well," she said. "We encourage the girls to write because they can't call."In Ohio last year, Girl Scouts and the Ohio Youth Advocacy Program ran a day camp for boys and girls with incarcerated mothers. At the Ohio Reformatory for Women, the four-day camp united youngsters with their mothers in activities ranging from crafts, games and songs to conflict resolution training.Like the Girls Scouts, 4-H program has also evolved with the changing needs of its members, said Nancy Valentine, who develops youth and family programs for the Cooperative Extension System in Washington.Beginning with tomato- and corn-planting clubs for farm children at the turn of the century, 4-H is the youth arm of the extension system -- an educational network operating through land-grant universities in every county in the United States. Today 4-H offers youth a lot more than canning tips and preparation for farm shows."Kids are as isolated in urban environments as they are in rural environments," said Christie Phillips, spokeswoman at the National 4-H Council. "If you look at 4-H statistics, only 12 percent (of our members) live on farms."The public isn't aware that the 4-H program has existed in urban areas and for at-risk kids for at least 20 years, said Valentine. "Our whole philosophy is that we base programs on local community needs. The way I see it, our mission has not changed."But, Valentine said, the youth and families they serve have. "Their needs are different. The life skills they need are not all agricultural."In Lincoln County, Ore., the local 4-H and the Oregon Council for the Arts created an after-school program that teaches circus arts like juggling and acrobatics to about 150 low-achieving children who were at high risk of dropping out of school altogether."The parents said they noticed a big difference in their kids' commitment to getting things done," said Evelyn Brookhyser, the Lincoln County extension agent. "They want to finish projects."In New Orleans, La., 4-H educational programs -- including parenting and nutrition workshops for teens -- are part of a collaborative effort that led over four years to a 38 percent decrease in pregnancy rates among participants, according program leaders.In Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia, and Kansas City, the federal government is promoting the urban outreach of 4-H with a $3.5 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand after-school programs in public housing.Now there are two dozen 4-H sites in Los Angeles housing projects alone, where kids can do their homework and learn basic life skills, such as coping with problems, budgeting and effective communication."It's providing a caring, supporting and learning environment for kids in housing projects after school," said Phillips of the National 4-H Council.Like Valentine, Phillips thinks the 4-H mission has stayed the same while the population and its member base have shifted to the cities. "Kids are at risk wherever they live. We're really trying to use the program to teach life skills, leadership and citizenship, just like always," she said.SIDEBAR OneGIRL SCOUTS REACH YOUNGSTERS, EVEN BEHIND BARSIf the Girl Scouts conjure up images of children in tidy uniforms making crafts together in safe suburban homes, think again. Girl Scouts are creating a range of programs to meet the needs of troubled youngsters -- including girls who have committed serious crimes and are confined to correctional facilities.Last year the Girl Scouts of Racine County, Wis., launched their first Girl Scout program at a maximum security juvenile facility, the Southern Oaks Girls' School.The 90 girls there, from 12 to 19 years old, have committed crimes ranging from theft to assault to homicide. Almost 95 percent of them are victims of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Now every Saturday and Sunday, the girls are learning about Girl Scout ideals from staff social workers.The girls have planted a garden, studied women's history, made greeting cards and worked on Girl Scout patches as they learned new skills. The workers say the girls show more self-confidence, responsibility and a willingness to make positive changes in their lives."We already see a lot of the girls working as a team," said Shannon Couch, the liaison with the Racine Girl Scouts. "They're also having a chance to experience new things, as simple as planting and harvesting a garden. They see what it takes to nurture something and see it through."Further south, the Northwest Georgia Girl Scout Council decided to take a similar approach with young first-time offenders. Their probation officers assign the girls, ranging from age 13 to 16, to the program for one year. Parents are also encouraged to participate.Girl Scout troop leaders visit the girls at the Georgia Hill Neighborhood Center in Fulton County. At their meetings, troop leaders use a variety of activities to encourage self-esteem and work on conflict resolution. They also talk to the girls about how they might live their lives differently once they get back to the real world.Linda Blackford is an education reporter for the Charlestown Gazette in Charleston, W. Va.

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