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Confidence Game

Girls Inc. goes onto Orange County campuses to help female students stay on course and avoid hanging with bad actors.

August 27, 1996|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Speaking with teenage matter-of-factness, Angie Scarborough describes her first years of high school as if they were the messed-up adolescence of some kid she used to know.

There were problems at home, there were problems at school. At 18, she now admits she probably needed some sort of organized, good-girl involvement.

"I was hanging out with the gang crowd," says Scarborough, of Costa Mesa. "They started drinking and getting into drugs and stuff. . . . I just wanted to get out of trouble."

After hearing about Girls Inc. of Orange County, Scarborough began the two years of hard work it took to fill the hole she had dug for herself by cutting classes and "wasting time with the wrong people."

"I made all of my work up in my senior year," says Scarborough, who graduated from Costa Mesa High School in June after a heavy load of classes by day and more courses at night. "It was hard, but it was worth it."

Scarborough's confusion-to-clarity experience echoes that of other young women at Girls Inc. who credit the guidance they received with developing new outlooks, says Orleda Roa, outreach program specialist.

The Girls Inc. approach of going directly into schools to reach girls sets it apart from scouting and other programs. That direct link underlies its success, say community leaders, school officials and others associated with the program.

In addition to its main center on Anaheim Street in Costa Mesa, Girls Inc. has satellite programs at Costa Mesa High School, Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach, TeWinkle Middle School in Costa Mesa, Summit Day School in Santa Ana and at Save Our Youth, a program for young Latinos in Costa Mesa.

This fall, sites are opening at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa and at Currie Middle School in Tustin.

The school branches are staffed at lunchtime and after school to accommodate girls with homework or to just be a place to drop in and chat. All are supervised by staff members and volunteers.

"We're on the campuses because that's where the girls are," says Kimber Simons, office manager. "We go to the girls instead of making the girls come to us."

On the Costa Mesa High campus, says principal Andy Hernandez, Girls Inc. fits right in.

"It gives us the opportunity to provide some excellent-quality services to girls who normally wouldn't come in and contact us. We've lost the ability to provide preventive-type counseling at school to head off crises. Girls Inc. forms relationships with these young ladies, and I think it's great."

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The appeal of the program's satellite locations continues to grow, says Shelley Westmore, executive director of Girl's Inc. of Orange County.

"We have had interest from principals in schools throughout Orange County with the desire to have Girl's Inc. on their campus," Westmore says. "They recognize that we address the emergent needs of adolescent girls and our success in those areas."

The program reaches about 6,000 girls a year, with 900 attending programs regularly.

Girls Inc. of Orange County began in the summer of 1954 as the Girls Club of the Harbor Area, a youth service organization with about 40 members. It started as a crafts and recreation club, changing throughout the years with the growing needs and concerns of girls.

The Orange County chapter is an affiliate of the 120-chapter Girls Inc., based in New York. Formerly known as Girls Clubs of America Inc., the name was simplified to Girls Inc. in 1990.

"The organization has had such dramatic changes over the years," says Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Mary Hornbuckle, who served on the local Girls Inc. board for 10 years. "Their motto is that growing up is serious business, and over the course of time it has branched out from cooking and crafts to academics and programs that reflect changes everywhere."

Even with the changes, Girls Inc. has remained committed to its original mission: "helping the next generation of women overcome the unique challenges facing girls and young women today with all the determination, knowledge and tenacity they need to enter adulthood triumphant."

At the main center in Costa Mesa is a room for younger members filled with small furniture and crafts, but in most of the Girl's Inc. locations, it's not the decor or hands-on projects that set the tone. "It's definitely the program that makes the room, not the room that makes the program," Simons says.

The girls help make their own rules, Simons says, such as refraining from criticizing one another's views and keeping private conversations confidential.

With an estimated 60 of every 1,000 teenage girls becoming pregnant each year, the issue of teen pregnancy is a priority at Girl's Inc., Westmore said.

In association with the California Wellness Foundation, UC Irvine and Planned Parenthood, 200 girls from Girls Inc. will participate in a study to determine risk factors in teen pregnancy.

"We need some long-term studies on the problem, and this should provide some answers," Westmore said.

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