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A Commitment to High Standards Brings Teenagers Together

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No matter what people say at school or in the neighborhood, the girls know they are not alone.

They are not the only ones saying no to sex and teen motherhood. They are not the only ones striving for success and personal achievement.

In the executive boardroom of Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood where the girls of Teenshop meet twice a month, no one thinks such ideas are strange.

“They understand how I feel,” said Fayola Welsh, 14. “It helps me to open up to people who face the same situation I do and to know other people are going through the same things I am.”

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In the push to save troubled and delinquent youths, sometimes teenagers like these are forgotten. With all the attention focused on those who have strayed, those who are quietly trying to do the right thing end up with no place to belong, said Dr. Judy Hunter-Davis, a pediatrician with Bay Shores Medical Group.

“There are so many things out there to support girls who have gotten into trouble or who are pregnant,” said Hunter-Davis, who founded the Los Angeles chapter of Teenshop in 1994. “There’s nothing out there to support girls who choose to do something more with their lives.”

Teenshop, she said, is for them.

The nonprofit youth development group based in Philadelphia offers girls camaraderie, support from older professional women who serve as mentors, and educational and cultural experiences.

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Recently, 10 members traveled to the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago to assist a group of doctors on a humanitarian mission. The trip is just one way that the group keeps the girls’ lives full--so full that other things, such as sex and teen parenthood, have no place.

“It’s an encouragement to keep on going and trying and shooting for your goals,” said Barbara Dozier, 17. “I look forward to coming. You see all the girls. You crack jokes. It’s just good friendships.”

In meetings held every other Saturday, the girls work on self-development--call it finishing school ‘90s style.

“We view ourselves as preparing young ladies for the real world,” said Elleanor Jean Hendley, founder and chairwoman of the organization.

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The Teenshop curriculum covers everything from social etiquette to stock market investment and sexually transmitted diseases. The girls have discussed fashion sense with a former Miss Black California, conflict resolution and violence prevention with a former gang member, and screenwriting with a writer from the television show “Moesha.” They have visited college campuses and museums and cooked meals for abused foster children.

A session with an English teacher left some of the girls with a new appreciation for the written and spoken word.

“Now I can be well-spoken,” said 14-year-old Lisa Stewart. “Before I speak, I think about what I’m going to say. I present myself.”

One Saturday, the girls gathered for an “Impact of the Media” workshop. Each girl seated at the boardroom table stood and introduced herself to the guest speaker, giving her name and her educational and career goals. They spoke in confident voices, heads high, no swaying or nervous giggling.

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Self-assurance is one of the fringe benefits of being in the group.

“You have that confidence and you know who you are and what you stand for,” said Lisa Glyden, 16.

The group is also where girls find encouragement to stay the course. When people at school criticized Fayola because she carried herself differently, her friends in Teenshop told her: Ignore what people say. Don’t lower yourself to their standards. Fayola has given the same form of encouragement to others.

What keeps the girls involved in Teenshop is not only the workshops and the camaraderie, but also their relationships with the mentors.

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“They’re almost like your second mother,” Lisa Glyden said. “They care about you so much. It influences you to make right decisions.”

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Like Hunter-Davis and Dr. Sylvia Swilley, a pediatric cardiologist and executive director of the group, the adult officers of Teenshop’s local chapter are all professional women: Dr. Daphne Calmes, a specialist in behavioral and developmental pediatrics; Dr. Lori Walker, a specialist in internal medicine; Rose Clayton, a legal secretary; and Rene Nourse, vice president of investments with Prudential.

When they talk to the girls about staying in school, going to college and achieving their goals, before becoming pregnant, they are speaking from experience.

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"[They] see all these African American adults who have done it,” said Walker, who grew up in the Crenshaw district. “I think that has inspired them to go for that higher goal.”

Many of the women who run Teenshop remember the support they received in their youth from family, extended family and their communities--and the difference it made in their lives.

“When I was in high school, women in my church gave money to help me pay for my applications for college,” said Swilley, who grew up in Portsmith, Va. “I very much came from an environment where people helped out the kids who were trying. When I find kids who are trying to make something of themselves I think we need to lend a hand.”

The need for help is perhaps even greater today. Youths, particularly African American youths, are bombarded with negative images about themselves, Walker said.

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“They tend to believe that that’s the way life should be and that’s how it going to continue,” Walker said. “Hopefully, Teenshop will break the cycle and the girls will then go out and be role models for other teens.”

When it comes to sex, girls of all races face the assumption that “everyone is doing it.”

“Over a million girls get pregnant each year,” Hunter-Davis said. “Many years ago, a girl had to leave town if she got pregnant because it was such a negative connotation for a non-married woman to be pregnant. Those mores and social pressures aren’t there anymore. It’s almost accepted.”

It is not accepted in Teenshop. Although the group is open to any girl age 13 to 18 as long as she is a student, teenage mothers cannot join. Any member who becomes pregnant is dismissed.

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“We have teen mothers come in and speak to our girls,” Hendley said. “These are teen mothers who will speak strongly against teen pregnancy and tell the girls how they wish they had not become [pregnant].”

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The group has faced some criticism for its policy toward teenage mothers, but surprisingly little, Hendley said.

She was heartened by a federal report released last week that showed a record low in the percentage of unmarried black women giving birth. Though still high in comparison to white women, the rate is the lowest since 1969, when the government began tracking the statistic.

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Hendley said she believes Teenshop and programs like it have contributed to the decline in teenage pregnancies.

Hendley started the first chapter at a church in North Philadelphia in 1985, and today there are three chapters.

Hendley has turned down requests to open new chapters because of a lack of funding. The organization is trying to raise money to hire a national executive director.

The Los Angeles chapter, which has about 30 members, has received some assistance from Kaiser Permanente and the friends and families of its officers.

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If Fayola had her way, more girls would attend Teenshop.

“It’s sad other people don’t have the experience we have, going to Teenshop and talking about our problems and having other people there to support us,” she said. “I think it would do them a lot of good.”


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