Students mentor girls in juvenile center to overcome disadvantaged childhoods

Noelle Henry

Every Tuesday evening, students from The University of Texas journey to Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center to speak to troubled girls in order to curb their patterns of breaking the law.

In the spring of 2017, Elisabeth Foster, a sociology and international relations junior, founded a student  organization called Leaders of Empowerment Through Story — a replicated program from Richmond University where women mentor adolescent girls at a local juvenile justice center.

Foster got in touch with Betts and began recruiting students to join her organization.

“I like working in detention because you get someone right before trial,” Foster said. “They’re nervous and they need someone to talk to.”

The organization speaks with girls in two groups during Tuesday evenings and allows the girls to privately speak about situations that were pivotal in their lives. They assign a word each week to lead conversations and direct girls to recount experiences that relate to positive themes. Beeta Salsabian, a senior sociology and psychology major, said her favorite word so far was “courage.”

“A lot of the young women there talked about times when they’ve stood up for other people in their lives,” Salsabian said. “I thought it was cool hearing about them doing something to benefit something else.”

Salsabian said all of the students go into meetings without knowledge of the backgrounds of the inmates or their crimes, leaving it up to the girls inside the center to determine how much information they’re willing to disclose. Foster said one of the things that really stands out to her is how innocent all of the girls are.

“These girls — it’s not always their fault,” Foster said. “They’re so young, they don’t always know right from wrong, and sometimes they don’t even intend for things to happen the way that they do.”

Noor Alahmadi, sociology senior and the marketing director of the organization, said she wants to go on to lobby for better education funding for kids in juvenile facilities. Alahmadi said she doesn’t believe children should be put into juvenile detention centers at all, recalling a specific instance of a girl who she thought should have received help rather than have been committed.

“She told me her story and there were so many red flags that an adult should’ve taken care of,” Alahmadi said. “I mean, she was in a position of abuse and she talked about it as if it were totally normal.”

Salsabian said many of the girls in the center live lives that most students would struggle to understand. Growing up, the girls experienced racial prejudice and violence that shaped their perspectives on morality. Foster said the students who visit try not to give overt advice or discern right or wrong in order to avoid resistance from the girls.

“You have to be careful not to push too hard,” Alahmadi said. “Some of it’s a belief system, almost like pushing on someone’s faith.”

Foster said the meetings vary in how resistant or open the inmates are. Some days, she feels as if she’s made an impact, and on other days, she feels she’s made no progress. Despite how hard it is for the students to see the impact of their visits, Foster, Alahmadi and Salsabian all agreed that the service they do is fulfilling.

“Even if it only makes an impact on that small community of girls there,” Foster said. “When they go home, I hope they can take what they’ve learned and spread it around.”