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Junior League enlists Girl Power to mentor troubled kids

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by Bridget Roberston | Nov 02, 2015

By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff 
Published: November 1, 2015   |   Updated: November 1, 2015 at 01:42 PM

LUTZ — Chavon moved 30 times by the time she turned 13, giving her bragging rights of a sort among the children who live at the Joshua House.

The cost she paid for this time in and out of foster care was high — anger management issues and struggles in school. But now 16, Chavon turned her life around during the three years she has lived at the home for abused, neglected and abandoned children from the Tampa area.

One reason is the mentoring she gets from a group of 21 women who have taken the girls at Joshua House under their wing. A committee formed by the civic association Junior League of Tampa, they call themselves “Girl Power.”

They encourage progress in reading and writing, offer career advice, and teach lessons many girls would get from a mother, sister and grandmother — things like feminine hygiene, cooking and sewing, balancing a checkbook.

“It’s the best thing to happen to me here; I love when they come,” said Chavon. At the request of Chavon and the Joshua House, the Tribune is not using her last name. “They teach me things I don’t learn anywhere else and they’re role models who believe in me.”

The Joshua House offers onsite services such as tutoring and professional counseling. Girl Power is an independent group that has visited the home in Lutz once a month for the past three years. The Junior League is considering now whether to renew the commitment in January.

“It’s needed,” said Aleks Jagiella, chairwoman of Girl Power, who said she is confident the renewal will come. “I cannot envision the Junior League taking us away from the girls.”

Jagiella, 43, a Tampa attorney, knows how foster children need adults they can trust to lean on for support. She was 16 and a senior in high school in Georgia when she entered the foster care system.

Her parents had a bitter divorce, she said, and her father was left to raise her alone. He was not an ideal parent. She then became a difficult teen and a runaway so the court decided to place her in the foster system.

She lived in two foster homes over a six-month period and both sets of foster parents treated her well, Jagiella said. Still, it was among the hardest experiences of her life.

“I was uprooted from everything I knew,” she said.

She was afraid, confused and felt alone.

“I was in the same school and a bit embarrassed to suddenly become a foster kid so I became isolated to avoid talking about it with other kids.”

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Jagiella credits the mother of her best friend with helping her through it. She did little things like taking her shopping or simply providing a shoulder to cry on. She was a woman the young girl could trust.

“It was then I decided I would do the same someday,” said Jagiella, who is in the process of adopting two young foster children. “Not everyone is as lucky as I was to have such angels in their life.”

The Junior League is an international, all-female organization that works to improve communities and develop women who want to become civic leaders.

Each local chapter decides its focus based on community needs.

The Junior League of Tampa, with 1,800 members, focuses on child welfare and education.

Among its initiatives are working in schools with high populations of low-income students to ensure they receive proper nutrition and educating the community on issues such as human trafficking of children.

“The Junior League is always searching for new ways to help the community,” said Tampa chapter President Stacy Carlson. “Unfortunately for girls at Joshua House, there have not been consistent role models in their lives. We felt we could help.”

The Joshua House is a residence for 36 children, 24 of them girls. An estimated 150 foster children live there for some period each year, said philanthropy director Janet Caramello.

Some are orphans. Others have parents living in the area but home life is troubled.

Joshua House can serve as a short-term transitional residence during the search for a foster home or, as with Chavon, a long-term home if a child can best benefit from consistent access to its therapeutic services, Caramello said.

The average length of stay is five to six months.

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Every year, more than 1,000 Florida teens and young adults leave foster care without families, according to the Children’s Home Society of Florida. Thirty-three Percent of those who leave without a support system will be homeless within three years.

In addition, 50 percent of young adults who leave foster care at 18 are unemployed and for those who do have jobs, the average income is less than $14,000 a year, the society says.

By promoting self-esteem and scholastic success, Girl Power hopes to turn around those statistics.

“Girl Power provides the girls at Joshua House educational opportunities and stresses the importance of education,” Carlson said. “But I think showing them that there are adults in our community who care about them and are concerned about their futures is just as important.”

Still, the girls at the Joshua House did not take to the Junior League women at first, Jagiella said.

“They saw us as nothing more than women in pearls,” she said with a laugh. “Like typical teenagers, they would roll their eyes at us when we talked.”

What won them over, Jagiella said, was the return visits. The foster children came to realize that the Girl Power would come back month after month, not leave them as so many others have.

It also helped to learn that Jagiella and another committee member had been foster children.

“It’s nice to have role models who experienced what I have and succeeded,” Chavon said. “It proves I can do it, too.”

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In Girl Power’s first year, the volunteers seldom would see more than half the female residents of Joshua House attended an event. Today, all 24 usually turn out.

“The girls here say Girl Power is among their favorite activities,” Caramello said. “Chavon in particular has taken their mentorship to heart. It has changed her. She is more confident now and plans to go to college.”

The learning process has extended to members of the committee, too.

Originally, they focused primarily on applying for college, career advice or literacy. Then a year ago, employees of the Joshua House informed the Junior League women that the girls could use some woman to woman talk, as well.

Now, the get-togethers cover a wide range of subject matter. The Girl Power volunteers also bring along small gifts a parent might give out — sewing kits, diaries, makeup and hair accessories.

Recently, when a few of the teenage girls had a school dance to attend, Girl Power helped them with dresses for the occasion.

Still, the group is about more than giving. It is also about teaching to give.

In October, for instance, Girl Power brought a seamstress to Joshua House to teach the girls to sew. Using their new skill, the girls stitched Teddy Bears for a Ronald McDonald House as presents for the sick and injured children who are served there.

In December, the girls will buy holiday presents for a poor family.

The lesson is civic-minded thinking, that there is always someone in greater need.

This has inspired Chavon.

An honor student now, she wants to become a doctor — maybe a heart surgeon.

“I want to help people,” she said, “because people are helping me.”

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