Developmental program for at-risk girls in Butte County extends to South Africa
In teaching a class for at-risk girls at Hearthstone Charter School in Oroville, Deanna Alexich has known girls from broken homes who’ve been mercilessly bullied, openly share thoughts of self-mutilation, and experience such inner turmoil they can’t sit still for three minutes straight. More common, though, are girls who just don’t get along with one other.
The class, BOLD Girls, is offered through the Butte County Office of Education and meets during school once a week, but also engages in fundraising, community service and mentorship programs outside of school hours. The intent is to empower at-risk girls ages 11 to 18 to “create, visualize and articulate future goals,” Alexich said.
“BOLD Girls isn’t really therapy,” Alexich explained during a recent interview. “It’s more about learning the tools to communicate, being aware of your own defense mechanisms and looking at those things that keep you from being successful.”
Alexich provided an example of a common defense mechanism many girls come armed with: the attitude that “all girls are bitches.”
“You’d be surprised how many girls come in and say, ‘I don’t do girls,’” she said. “And rightfully so for some—they’ve been pushed around either at home or on campus.”
But Alexich has seen many of those same students adopt a new outlook by forging friendships with their peers in BOLD Girls, or simply recognizing their differences. “Maybe they don’t end up being best friends, but at least they work out their crap,” she said. “That’s a skill you need even as an adult female; you’ve got to take care of yourself.”
In fact, the basic tools provided by the course have proven applicable well beyond girls in Butte County. What started as a pilot program just a few years ago has borne an international offshoot, the BOLD Girls Global Network, which connects girls here with their peers in South Africa—many of whom, despite cultural differences, share the need for guidance as they develop into young women.
Back when Alexich began teaching at Hearthstone in 2011, the intake counselor noticed that an alarming number of incoming girls were struggling to maintain their emotional well-being.
“Bullying was a trend,” Alexich said. “Some of the kids had parents who aren’t able to take care of them; many of them were fostered.”
In 2012, Alexich’s supervisor, Kim Guzzetti, saw the need for additional support and suggested a pilot program in which six to eight at-risk girls would meet once a week and undertake creative projects, including writing assignments and arts and crafts. That year, Alexich also mentored with RoLanda Allaha Wilkins, executive director of Earth Mama Healing, a Sacramento-based nonprofit dedicated to the development of young black women. (Wilkins now serves as director of a program similar to Alexich’s, Dream Girls, that engages more than 200 girls through the Sacramento County Office of Education.)
Each week, Alexich would find a hands-on way to cover topics such as relationships, academics and self-identity. An exercise she employs to this day involves one girl standing in front of a white board while her peers write words that frankly describe her.
“They’re honest about depicting each girl,” Alexich said. “Even the flaws, even the stuff that pisses people off. They don’t always get along with each other, but they’re honest about it.”
Sometimes the lessons were more career-oriented, including résumé-writing, job shadowing, mock interviews and community service. But the overarching goal was to “get girls to feel good enough about themselves to see allies in other girls,” Alexich said. “That’s hard, if you haven’t had that.”
During that first year, one of the girls coined the acronym BOLD: Becoming Our Life Dream. Meanwhile, the pilot program was deemed a success and BOLD Girls was built into the high school program at Hearthstone.
While Alexich has been growing the program locally over the past few years—it will soon expand to Four Winds Indian Education Center in Chico and Paradise Intermediate School—the international connection has roots in 2011, when Alexich taught English in South Africa. In 2013, she returned and introduced teachers in Durban, Cape Town and Swaziland to the BOLD Girls curriculum. Now, more than 100 girls in South Africa participate in the program.
And this past year Alexich helped launch the BOLD Global Network, a closed Facebook group for teachers, interns and students around the world to share activities, successes and community service experiences. The eventual goal, Alexich said, is to create an international exchange program so girls can interact face-to-face with their peers in other countries.
On Aug. 2, Alexich and Wilkins, her mentor, will return to South Africa for three weeks in hopes of engaging more teachers and students in the curriculum. Wilkins said by phone that the BOLD Girls assignments fit the needs of girls everywhere—whether in Oroville, Sacramento or Durban.
“If you look at the basic core of it, the girls are all going through the same things: ‘Am I going to be accepted? My momma’s got this issue, my daddy ain’t around.’ They all have a lot of issues around self-worth and bullying. So, how do we teach young people to see each other with their hearts, and not to judge?”
Alexich has observed much of the same during her time in Africa.
“There’s an assumption that we’re so different,” Alexich said. “But going back and forth, it’s shocking in a good way how some of these pivotal assignments just completely fit. The girls need it there, too.”