On a rainy Wednesday night at the Mission Girls Center, Noia Siamu, a case manager, pulled a young lady to one side.
“I have something important to talk to you about.”
“What did I do?” Alex Rodriguez, 17, asked quizzically, biting her lip ring and tipping her large Giants cap over her face.
“It’s a good thing! As you know, every year we have college road trips. It’s limited seating [and] we choose … participants who are active, participants who are invested and participants who we feel are looking towards their future.”
“So I’ve chosen you.”
Rodriguez played off any excitement.
“So we have to leave this side of the city?”
“We have to leave this side of the state. It’s the dirty south!” The girls will be touring Alabama and Georgia. “What do you think about that?” Noia asked.
Rodriguez is one of about 10 participants in the Young Queens on the Rise program, an initiative of the local nonprofit Mission Girls that’s aimed at improving the lives of young “at-risk” females who have had contact with the law or the juvenile system, or who are truant from school.
Young Queens is an umbrella for three sub-programs: the diversion group works with girls who are or were involved with the system, the prevention group serves girls who display risky behavior, and the raíces (roots) program provides sexual health workshops and life skills to young girls at school.
The college road trip is one of many creative events aimed at cultivating strong, successful women. Other activities include yoga, boxing, cultural cooking and a violence prevention collaboration with the district attorney’s office. Next week’s agenda, for example, includes a visit to a local credit union to learn how to balance spending and saving.
Rodriguez and friend Dora Gutierrez, 18, were the only two in attendance at the weekly Young Queen “check-in” Wednesday night, but Noia didn’t waste an opportunity to engage, interact and share plenty of laughs with the girls.
The only full-time staff member for the program, Noia is like a big sister. The youthful Samoan American mentor speaks to the girls in a relatable street-like tone, showing patience when they joke around and encouraging self-expression in a judgment-free atmosphere.
In between each Wednesday night check-in activity, Noia finds the right time to share a life lesson.
“I want you guys to think about when you set goals for yourself. What do you guys tell yourself when you wake up in the morning?”
“Get the f**k up,” joked Gutierrez, who is mother to the almost one-year-old JJ.
“What else do you say to yourselves?”
“Imma be late!” Gutierrez added.
“I gotta go to school because if I don’t go to school, I won’t have the freedoms that I do now,” Rodriguez said matter-of-factly.
Noia is satisfied with the response. “You know what you have to do, the consequences, the risks. I want you to challenge yourselves. So when you wake up in the morning, you say something positive.”
Rodriguez and Gutierrez (the more outspoken of the two) are quite the jokesters — they laugh a bit about bullying teachers for recommendation letters, a bit more about cute models in magazines — but they respect Noia.
Rodriguez listened attentively when Noia advises her to be a positive role model for younger participants.
“If you ever come into contact with any of the Mission Girls outside of here, and if you see that stuff is going down … I need you to be the bigger person and to think logically about the situation. For every action, there’s a consequence for it, you know what I’m saying. I know you have influence, I know you have impact in a positive way.”
It’s a responsibility Rodriguez seems willing to take on.
Weekly check-in is, perhaps, one of the few settings in which these young girls can speak sincerely and actually be heard.
The girls — who display an outwardly tough demeanor but exude a childlike innocence — willingly share their aspirations and life goals with Noia and a reporter. Gutierrez dreams of having a little girl and working as a probation officer. Rodriguez sees a future with two kids and low-riders.
A youth services program under the Mission Neighborhood Centers, Mission Girls strives to inspire and empower girls to be independent and successful. It is an all-female lead organization that aims to provide a safe space for girls to feel loved, share secrets and aspirations, and ask questions, said Susana Ramos, a longtime Mission resident and director of the Girls’ services.
Ramos, who started her professional career at Mission Girls 19 years ago, says she understands the unique challenges facing girls in the Mission District.
“A lot of the kids in the Mission grow up with boundaries that other girls don’t grow up with … Kids in the Mission have to know what’s happening and where they live and what the boundaries are … and how do they avoid being cut up in those boundaries so that they can go from block to block without worrying.
“It’s really hard for girls in the Mission to find [their] identity and to be able to find who they are without [external] influences … It’s hard enough just being a girl and then having to figure out what your place is in different settings.”
Part-time staffer Marisol Perez, 18, credits Mission Girls for cementing her career goal to become a social worker and for helping her blossom into a confident woman.
Nearly three years ago, Perez was in the Mission Girls’ after-school program, which provides educational support for middle-school girls, and she returned recently as the organization’s youngest staff member.
“I lost my mom when I was little … so this is kind of like a place to go to and escape to when I had nothing else to do,” Perez said.
“I came back I think because of the support,” she added. “This is something I would do for free, getting to know the girls, growing a bond with them, them being able to come to me about school or whatever. They remind me a lot of me. So its nice to be on the other side of the spectrum and see them grow up as women.”