“Each year,” the America’s Promise Alliance reports, “one in four U.S. public high school students fail to graduate with a diploma,” and for many of them, teen pregnancy is a key factor in their decision to drop out. In Newburgh, one of the highest poverty and highest crime areas in the state of New York, these statistics are devastatingly evident for at-risk young women. They need concerted, community efforts to shift the trend. That’s why, at the turn of the millennium, St. George’s Church in Newburgh was moved to respond to the high rates of teen pregnancy in their community by offering parenting classes and supplemental education for young women. Now, over a decade later, St. George’s has shifted its focus to equipping young girls with the life skills and support that empower them to be community leaders and make smart choices.
In its second year of operation, Newburgh Girl Power is a program that leverages multiple community partnerships and parish involvement on several levels to create the best possible outcomes for girls. The program’s director, Doris Perez, a lifelong resident of Newburgh, works in the public school system and uses these connections to recruit girls and meet their needs. Additionally Newburgh Girl Power’s board engages experienced, diverse woman leaders from both St. George’s parish and community organizations like Planned Parenthood and Mount Saint Mary College. Their expertise in marketing, development and mentoring to supports the program’s small staff.
The contributions of St. George’s Church are crucial to the program’s success. The parish provides a roomy, sun-filled hall and adjacent kitchen for the girls’ meetings every week, and the parish vestry has secured funding from Episcopal Charities for room dividers that will allow the program to serve more girls in future years. Finally, St. George’s priest, the Rev. Dustin Trowbridge, is always on hand for guidance, and he also serves on the Girl Power Advisory Board. These committed community partners come together to create a program tailored to the needs of young women in Newburgh.
Throughout the school year, a group of about 13 girls ages nine to twelve gathers each Thursday to develop self-esteem, leadership and friendship under the direction of three adult leaders. Activities range from art projects promoting healthy body image, to a guided curriculum about puberty, to cultural activities in New York City on days off from school. Jane Smith, a member of the Episcopal Charities Advisory Committee who visited Girl Power recently, remarked, “The program operates within a climate of respect, fun, laughter and high expectations for the participating girls.” Indeed, since the program started in 2012, attendance is high (90% weekly) and participants are committed to the group. In fact, as older girls age out of the existing Girl Power program, their director and advisory board are making plans to expand to another weekly gathering for young teenagers. With the support of their community and the St. George’s parish, the young women in Newburgh Girl Power are on a path toward success.