Santa Rosa, CA

by Kathleen Pettis

The Sierra Youth Center is a residential coed facility for teenagers. Our kids have a variety of criminal histories and many have experienced emotional and physical deprivation during their childhood. Sierra provides a variety of experiences for the kids. The goal is to introduce new skills and build self-esteem.

Our female population has always been about one-quarter to one-third of our total population of twenty youth. This is very typical of juvenile residential programs across the country. As with the males in our program, our girls are being admitted for more violent and gang-related crimes than in the past.

The residents are very traditional in their thinking and in setting their goals. They often assume their future must be designed by their family's past. Because of their childhood or lack thereof, our girls need to be taught how to dream. That isn't easy because, to succeed in their own lives, they have to come to grips with what may seem like a betrayal to their own family. These girls are so brave!

Role modeling is one of the strongest services we can provide. We are fortunate at Sierra to have many female staff who have taken different paths to pursue their interests. I am the Director, some of my female staff are athletes, some are artists, some are of color, some are older, some are pursuing their education, some are raising families, and some combine all of these things.

Just as important are the male staff. Our facility is often the first time our girls have had positive male figures to talk to about any issue. They form healthy relationships with appropriate boundaries and take that knowledge with them for future reference.

It is important to help the young women prioritize their goals. If a young woman doesn't have a home, then our first step won't necessarily be college, but it may be a course or two. This type of problem-solving is empowering. Each achievement strengthens their ability and desire to improve.

Some of the ways in which we try to nurture our young women are to:

Pay individual attention.   Regular talks with staff, mentors, volunteers, candy jar in Director's office that encourages conversation, notes of acknowledgement from staff on their desk or pillow.

Introduce the idea of treating other women with respect.   Improve communication skills, problem-solve with individuals, work on their relationship with their mothers.

Learn who they are.  Listen, ask questions, give praise, help set goals.

Help them be proud of who they are.  Reinforce heritage, emphasize strengths.

Identify and improve health issues.  Present options for medical/dental care, provide cosmetic assistance when appropriate (tattoo removal, discolored teeth repair, etc.).

Therapy.   Individual, family, moral development, substance abuse, anger management.

Working with each girl is unique. We try to remain open to each child's strengths and creative ways of encouraging them to make positive choices to grow.

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