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PEARLS expands programming for at-risk girls

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PEARLS chief executive officer Danae D. Davis (center) with PEARLS girls Shantell Cox, Alissa Evans, Alliyha Bowman and Ambryon McKinnie during Shop the Third Ward, a fundraiser for the organization. (Photo by Jennifer Reinke)

Alliyha Bowman, 15, a sophomore at St. Joan Antida High School does not want to become a statistic. That’s why last year Bowman joined PEARLS for Teen Girls, an innovative nonprofit organization that aims to increase graduation rates and reduce teen pregnancy among Milwaukee’s girls of color ages 10 – 19.

Through community collaborations and a curriculum using girl-adult partnerships, PEARLS encourages girls’ self-development and emphasizes goal-setting and leadership.

The challenges faced by at-risk girls are numerous and complex.

“There’s the obvious and the not so obvious,” said Danae D. Davis, PEARLS chief executive officer. We’re all too aware of the obvious: poverty, dysfunction, incarceration, abuse, failing schools, teen pregnancy – to name a few. Then, there’s the unobvious.

“On the surface she looks like she’s fine. But she lacks self-esteem so deeply that she’s making all the wrong choices,” said Davis.

PEARLS girl Shantell Cox, a junior at Riverside University High School, looks on as Mayor Tom Barrett reads a proclamation celebrating PEARLS Day. (Photo by Jennifer Reinke)

Despite this range of challenges, Davis believes PEARLS can work for every girl.

“The reasoning can be different but the impact just the same,” said Davis, who said she was once one of those “unobvious” girls who could have benefitted from the program. Today, she’s a picture of success, having graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School and held leadership roles in both the private and public sectors for more than 25 years.

Always involved in youth development, Davis jumped at the opportunity to lead PEARLS in 2006 during a time of organizational transition. Since then, PEARLS has grown from serving 120 to 850 girls annually.

Alissa Evans, 14, and Ambryon McKinnie, 15, joined PEARLS along with Bowman in their first year at St. Joan Antida. Shantell Cox, 16, a junior at Riverside University High School has been in PEARLS since joining in fifth grade at Business and Economics Academy of Milwaukee. The program helped them to become better leaders and communicators, achieve goals and participate in the community, they said.

McKinnie said the program has given her a sisterhood of “people to depend on when [she needs] to talk.” The girls giggled collectively when they explained that PEARLS allows them to talk about things they don’t want to discuss with parents or others who would judge – important topics such as boys, sex and puberty.

This summer Evans, who was named St. Joan Antida PEARLS Girl of the Year, will travel with the PEARLS National College Tour to visit historically black colleges and universities in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Having observed her mother’s struggle to find a trustworthy auto mechanic and inspired by PEARLS’ commitment to women, she aspires to major in business and minor in auto mechanic engineering, and then open her own auto body shop catering to female customers.

PEARLS’ 10,000 Girls Initiative will extend the organization’s programming to reach even more girls through a five-phase growth plan. The timeline is flexible, Davis said, because she wants to be sure the quality of programming doesn’t diminish as capacity increases.

By 2013, PEARLS plans to add 250 girls at 10 new sites, bringing the total number of girls served annually to 1,100. The outreach and recruitment plan maintains PEARLS’ practice of leveraging community partnerships and complementing services offered by site partners, such as schools and health clinics.

Traditionally, organizations have requested PEARLS services at their sites. With the new initiative, PEARLS will also reach out to new demographics. A partnership with the award-winning Wraparound Milwaukee program will serve girls with complex mental health problems and partnerships with Hmong American Peace Academy and International Peace Academy will bring PEARLS’ curriculum to Hmong girls.

To honor PEARLS’ success, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett – a former classmate of Davis’ at the UW Law School – recently issued a proclamation celebrating PEARLS Day.

As part of the celebration, the community was invited to participate in the “PEARL of Wisdom” social media campaign. The advice will be shared with PEARLS’ 25 graduating high school seniors and the community.

Asked for her own PEARL of Wisdom in 140 characters or less, Davis revealed the organization’s values: “You can be anything that you want to be. Believe in yourself and go for it. It is yours to have. You are worthy of whatever it is.”

Bowman said: “We are all loved so we should love ourselves. We can accomplish anything we set our minds to.”