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At-risk girls join GGYA

A juvenile detention facility for girls is about to receive a new addition.

For only the second time in its history, the Governor General’s Youth Award (GGYA) is rolling out its program at the Willie Mae Pratt Centre for Girls. The goal is to help troubled young women find a sense of achievement and purpose, ultimately improving their odds for a successful reentry into their families and communities.

A seven-strong cohort comprised mostly of 15 and 16-year-olds were introduced to GGYA by Denise Mortimer, the award’s national director, on Thursday, March 7.

“This is a trial run,” she advised the teens following a viewing of video, promotional material and a brief presentation. “Our goal is for you to get your bronze award six months from now.”

Voluntary and non-competitive GGYA is open to anyone age 14 to 24. Participants design their own programs, set their own goals and record their progress in community service, physical activity and skill. The teens must log four hours a month minimum in each area.

They must also plan, train for and complete a hiking expedition – what the program refers to as an adventurous journey – lasting two days and one night.

“I am extremely excited about this program. I am sure it will assist in their rehabilitation,” said Michelle Nottage, the center’s superintendent. “One of our goals is to make the residents stronger and better for when they leave here so that they can function better in society.”

Past and present participants speak highly of the internationally recognized award which develops the whole person: mind, body and soul, in a team-building environment.

Still, it takes funds to put on the program for such a small unit in a secured facility, requiring special approval and extra security to venture outside the compound. A grant from the Department of Gender and Family Affairs of the Ministry of Social Services and Urban Development is funding this initiative.

To give this pilot program the best shot at success, officials hand-picked its unit leaders. Three gold award holders who know the ins and outs of GGYA’s program well since they have been through it themselves, will work closely with the center for girls; they are Arvis Mortimer; Syneisha Bootle; and the GGYA’s own training leader, Jacquetta Lightbourne-Maycock.

A natural fit, Mortimer was already familiar with some of the youths, having worked closely with the center’s residents for four months last year through her “I Am Powerful” risk-reduction program, which focused on HIV prevention, teen pregnancy, decision-making and imbuing the young ladies with a sense of self-worth.

“I recognize the award as being a program for transformation, and so this is something I was definitely very excited to see happen,” she said. “Generally, in our country we have a lot of social activities but there is disparity in distribution. Sometimes programs we know are impactful do not reach the participants they could possibly have the greatest impact on, so I’m excited to see the ladies have this opportunity.”

Decades earlier, Bootle’s mom volunteered at the Girls’ Industrial School (now the Willie Mae Pratt Centre), allowing her daughter to see first-hand the life-long impact a positive role model could make. The Bootle family remains close with a few former residents, now adults with families of their own.

“I wanted to be a part of this process of self-development for the girls, helping to change their perspective about themselves and life in general,” said Bootle, an attorney. “I want to lend that support and, perhaps, be that inspiration for them as they transition back into their communities.”

The last time GGYA (previously known as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award) was active at the girl’s detention center is believed to be more than 30 years ago.

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