Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting with 35 teenage girls from the Girls’ Empowerment Mission, or G.E.M., a mentorship program now in its 11th year that continues to flourish under the leadership of founder Debbi Weinberg. This remarkable Living Classrooms Foundation program invites disadvantaged girls who attend Chesapeake High School in Essex into a nurturing, inspiring atmosphere that launches their future lives.
The girls’ brief histories are fraught with deprivation. Without even a parent to guide them in some cases, their stressful lives have consisted of loneliness -- as one girl said, “I felt like I don’t belong to anyone” – poor choices, and a hopeless outlook. Before starting GEM, they didn’t know where they were headed or who they could become let alone who they would become. One of the girls, whose dire circumstances would discourage the heartiest among us, described her GEM experiences as “a vacation from reality” that gave her self-confidence and hope for the future.” I marveled at her blossoming under the guidance of Mrs. Weinberg and the GEM staff.
What sets the entire program in motion is Weinberg and her staff’s contagious faith in the mentoring process and in the girls’ potential. Supportive and non-judgmental, they expose the girls to a wide array of career possibilities, teach them life skills, and foster their social skills, fill in the gaps in their education about mental and physical health, encourage them to make wholesome choices, and demonstrate the meaning of dedication.
GEM incorporates two evening programs and one weekend retreat each month, with a full three-year curriculum focusing on self-discovery, career exploration, leadership, and service to others. Each girl is paired with a female mentor who connects with her four times a month to assist with academic, social, or cultural development. GEM continues to support the girls in college, providing financial assistance, counseling, programming, and support. Currently, the program serves 37 girls who attend Chesapeake High and a group of 85 alumni.
My GEM experience left me wondering if we ever think of ourselves as mentors to our children. I wondered too, what it would mean to them if they were mentored – and what it would mean to them if they weren’t. Many parents do expose their children to different experiences and people for the purpose of exploring their particular interests. Other parents don’t have the luxury of time or resources to actively mentor.
But Weinberg suggests it takes just one caring adult – an aunt, uncle, grandparent, neighbor, friend to make a world of difference in the life of a child, whether that entails tutoring, going on excursions to stimulate his or her interests in a variety of career choices, or simply spending time to learn a child’s interests or needs.
“Some parents do not have the time or skills to help their children become independent, confident and successful young adults,” says Weinberg, who worked at Chesapeake High as a guidance counselor for seven years through the Maryland’s Tomorrow drop-out prevention program before leaving to run GEM full time. “Having an adult outside the home can do that by supplementing what parents are doing. GEM does just that; it provides many mentors to the girls it serves so they break out of the cycle of poverty and become independent, self-sufficient, confident young women.”
Weinberg tells the story of one GEM girl, whom she calls Kay, as a prime example of the program’s successes. “She was born to a single mom who struggled to make ends meet. Kay made some bad decisions as a freshman in high school and wound up getting involved with the law. Shortly after that, she applied to be in GEM, which changed her path forever. She excelled in school, went to college and is now 25 years old with her Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing as an RN. She has a great job working at a hospital in Baltimore and is on her way to building her future as an independent young woman. She is one of many examples of the lives GEM has transformed.
Here are some further highlights of GEM’s impact on the young women it has served.
· Since its inception in 2005, GEM has positively influenced the lives of more than 122 disadvantaged girls from the under-served and low income community of Essex.
· Currently, GEM serves 40 girls who attend Chesapeake HS, as well as a group of 76 alumni.
· GEM girls have had a 100% high school graduation rate.
· 95% of GEM graduates enrolled in college after graduation with the support of GEM.
· 98% of GEM graduates were the first in their families to go to college.
· GEM has provided over $100,000 in scholarship funds to help GEM girls achieve their college dreams.
What could be more satisfying than opening up a young person to a whole new world of possibilities? What could be a finer goal than enabling a girl without hope to achieve her dream? That is what GEM is doing. As parents, can we do less?
For more information about The GEM program visit their website at www.GEMmaryland.org.