Girl Scouts program helps incarcerated youths get back on right track (40296)

Five years after its founding in 1912, the Girl Scouts started selling cookies. Now, after 100 years, the Girl Scouts have formed a new tradition with a program that empowers young girls in detention centers.

The Girl Scouting in Detention Centers program, run by the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, helps female juvenile offenders gain the confidence and skills they need to have successful careers. The goal is to expose young girls to positive role models so they do not reoffend once they leave a detention center. Detention Centers programs have existed all over the United States for almost a decade, including in Arizona, Iowa and Alabama.

Before 2009, New York didn’t have one. “I decided that it was time for New York to have one,” said Sonia Levine, founder of the Detention Centers program for the Girl Scouts of Greater New York. “We try to make sure all of our curricula focuses on self-esteem building and self-awareness.”

Every other week, Levine and four or five college interns meet with a group of four to 16 girls. The girls, ages 12-17, are mostly minorities, Levine said. Meetings usually last between one and two hours. Participation in the meetings is optional.

The program is offered at five different detention centers, places where a girl or teen waits for her case to be examined–one on Staten Island, one in Queens, one in Brooklyn and two in the Bronx.

The program also holds meetings every week at placement centers, facilities where youths are sent to complete their sentences after their case is over.

In 1985, there were 222,900 cases of female delinquency, according to statistics from the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Since then, that number has more than doubled. The rate for males, though higher, increased at a much slower pace.

Female incarcerated youth also experienced extensive trauma, more so than the male population, Levine said. “It makes them have different needs. Its been shown that females don’t respond to the same type of program that males do,” she said.

In addiction to career exploration, the program helps the girls work on their communication skills. “When you are feeling emotions and you don’t have the verbal capacity to put it into words, it can lead to violence,” said Levine.

Art is also used to help the girls envision positive images of their future. In one activity, the girls write down their dreams on four strips of construction paper. All of the pieces of paper are then curled into circles and woven together to create a curtain.

“The idea is that if you go through your life and imagine, you’re looking through a curtain of your dreams, it can guide your decision,” Levine said.

One particular day, Levine noticed that one of the girls, a 15-year-old who eagerly attended every meeting, didn’t write down what her dreams were.

“She said, ‘I was going to write ‘being happy, but every time I am, someone just takes it away,’ ” said Levine.

A short time after, Levine took some of the girls, including the 15-year-old, on a trip to participate in a program for scholarships. Levine said it was then the girl realized what her dreams were.

“When I was taking them back to the unit, [the 15-year-old] gave me a strip of paper, and it said ‘to complete the [Girl Scouts Scholars] program,’ ” Levine said. “We had given her that dream.”

The 15-year-old, whose name could not be used because she is a ward of the state, completed the scholarship program last winter.

“I think it’s an excellent program,” said Faye Lewis from the Office of Children and Family Services, one of the state agencies the Girl Scouts serves. “[Levine] brings resources to at-risk youth that they would not have access to.”

Levine said during the holidays she and her interns visit the detention centers every week. Every girl receives a Christmas present. Gifts include body washes, hats, gloves, socks, lip balm, stationery and scented lotions.

The Detention Centers program brings the girls love and kindness that they can take with them when they are released. Levine said she hopes the program will eventually provide community troops to further guide the girls once they leave the detention centers.

“It would be really great if we could offer continued assistance and consistent help within the boroughs,” she said. “We just don’t have the capacity to expand right now because we just don’t have the budget for it.”

Levine will continue to do whatever she can to prevent the girls from reoffending despite the lack of funds.

“Hopefully they don’t come back to us again,” said Sonia Galarza, from the Administration for Children’s Services, another agency the Girls Scouts serves. “[Levine] has given them that opportunity.”