Photo by Ash Daniel
The girl in the powder-blue parka, zipped to the neck and faded from wear, leans over her letter, writing thoughtfully. She has a lot to say to the young woman seated next to her, who is equally engrossed in capturing her thoughts on paper.
Geanne Atkins-West, a 12-year-old resident of Richmond's East End, and her "big sister," Grace Leonard, a University of Richmond employee who works in the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, don't share genes. But they do share a strong bond, fostered over the past nearly nine months during which they both have been part of the Visual Arts Center's Space of Her Own (SOHO) program.
"I think she's nice, she's smart and she helps me out," says Geanne (pronounced Gee-yah-nee), who talks with a measured precision that matches the neat handwriting of her letter. "If she was mean and she helped you out, that wouldn't be good — like when they help you out and they yell at the same time."
Geanne cracks a sly smile as Leonard, amused, studiously pretends she's not listening. The letters they write will be exchanged during the closing ceremony of Space of Her Own, on May 15. But first, with the school year nearly over, today marks one final day together for all 12 girls and their 12 big sisters in SOHO. The innovative program, celebrating its fifth year, pairs girls with mentors and art to forge relationships and lifelong learning that's fundamental to young girls entering the difficult transition to teendom and then to adulthood. Today, it's about art — and dancing. Mostly dancing.
Letter writing concludes. Bouncing along to a thudding Lil' John bass riff, an impromptu conga line of enthusiastic big sisters and at-first-pained-looking little sisters threads around the spacious multi-purpose room of the VisArts Studio on Main Street. Just as the girls get into the groove, the music abruptly stops.
"I want you guys to pair up with one another — whoever's closest," shouts Tesni Stephen, one of two SOHO program directors, barely making herself heard over the riotous squeals of both girls and women. "Now give each other a high five!" And again the music starts, this time inspiring free-form dancing — and more squeals.
"Now tell whoever you're with what your favorite quality of your big or little sister is," Stephen says the next time the music stops, again competing with an echo of giggles.
It's not all about giggles and dancing. The music fades and the kids scarf down snacks before moving on to view an exhibition currently at VisArts, "Radical Jewelry Makeover," where they ooh and aah over jewelry and sculptures fashioned from recycled and repurposed jewelry.
Then they move to the fiber studio, where the girls have spent many of the 20 or so days they've met with their mentors. It's here they've participated in one of the signature elements of SOHO: creating art and hand-crafted decorative items like pillows, drapes and bedspreads for their own rooms at home — the literal part of Space of Her Own that goes hand in hand with the emotional space this community of women aims to provide. The final room transformations take place the weekend after this last after-school meeting; the enduring changes effected by the program, says Mike Maruca, founder and head of Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, may not be known for years to come.
The girls participating in SOHO have, for the past two years, come from Anna Julia Cooper, a private middle school across the street from Creighton Court and just blocks from Fairfield Court in Richmond's rough-and-tumble East End. The school gives scholarship tuition to all of its students, and Maruca says he sees SOHO as an extension of the school's mission of "changing the trajectory of children's lives."
Though he's not one to linger on the difficulties and concerns inherent in public and subsidized housing, Maruca says that both the school and its association with SOHO aim to ease that difficult transition from elementary school to the hormonal pressure cooker of middle school that's only made more difficult by community circumstances. "The bottom line is the circumstances that most of them are coming out of are just more challenging," he says.
Maruca says that a number of mentors from last year's class have continued as big sisters to the girls they were paired with. "That's what I'd hoped would happen."
It's what happened to Liana Elguero. The darkroom photography instructor at VisArts joined SOHO as a big sister and was so taken by the positive impact she had on her little sister that she stuck around. Today, she's Stephen's partner in running the program. Elguero believes that the consistency of meeting every Tuesday afternoon provides an anchor during a critical developmental age. "The program itself just instills a lot of confidence in the girls," she says. "The whole program is to sort of learn about yourself and to learn about that other person."
That learning extends to the mentors, she says, or the program wouldn't work nearly as well. Mentor volunteers each spend eight full days attending a leadership program. They're paired with an established female leader in the Richmond community who provides counseling and advice on everything from daily life to careers.
Mentoring is something that Carley Hamilton, owner of UFab, a successful Richmond designer-fabric and upholstery shop, found deeply rewarding. Initially contacted by SOHO organizers about donating fabrics for the room-decorating projects, Hamilton was drawn to volunteer as a mentor. "I [had] a complicated and difficult upbringing, so I felt I could relate to and potentially help these girls on a personal level," she says. "And it truly has been rewarding."
Crucial to SOHO is that mentees also teach valuable lessons. "Geanne has taught me to be patient," Leonard says. "She's very good at not rushing when we're working on a project and not worrying about what the others are doing." One big takeaway for Leonard? "Just learning how much middle school shapes you."
Geanne, not surprisingly, can relate. "In fifth grade, I was scared, because I was like, ‘What if everyone was mean to me?' " she says. But with age — and SOHO — comes confidence. "I have lots of friends."