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Gwen’s Girls Empowering At-risk Youth

Jul 31, 2017 08:25PM ● Published by Clare Heekin Lynch

Gallery: Gwen’s Girls Empowering At-risk Youth [5 Images] Click any image to expand.

In 1973, Gwendolyn Elliott became one of the first African-American police officers in the country. She worked hard to break barriers and eventually rose in the ranks to become the first woman promoted to sergeant and, ultimately, commander.

During her time with the Pittsburgh Police, Elliott not only protected the community, but worked to uplift families in need–particularly the young women and girls she encountered on a daily basis. “She was determined to give them a better life–not just for themselves, but for their children and future generations to come,” said daughter Kathi Elliott, DNP, MSW, CRNP. 

In 2002, Elliott’s dream came true with the opening of Gwen’s Girls, an agency that gives at-risk girls the programs and services that they desperately need to tackle racial and gender disparities.

Now in its 15th year, the organization continues to work tirelessly to break down the barriers that these young women face not only in the educational system, but in social services and juvenile justice systems as well. “While my mom is no longer with us, her spirit lives on in the lives of our girls and their families,” said Dr. Elliott, who serves as the executive director of Gwen’s Girls. 

According to the Girl Scout Research Institute, more than four in 10 girls in the United States are living below the poverty line. “This impacts their health, their happiness and, most importantly, their potential for future achievements,” said Dr. Elliott. 

The study also found that more girls now live in single-parent families– 34 percent compared with 32 percent in 2007. African-American girls are the most likely to live in poverty while Caucasian girls are the least likely.

In advocating against the inequalities that African-American girls face in the Allegheny County region, Dr. Elliott has utilized her nursing and social work background to both refine and develop resources to help these girls succeed. “Gwen’s Girls offers holistic programs, education, and experiences. More importantly, we offer a safe space where girls and young women can form relationships, build self-esteem, and gain resiliency,” she said. 

Since 2002, the organization has helped more than 5,000 young women avoid the traps of poverty through after-school programs, in-school classes and academic support, health and wellness events that serve the physical, mental, social, and emotional issues many face, and relationship management and resolution support. “If we don’t address the importance of building and nurturing a strong family unit or support system, then how can these women evolve to become stable, productive members of their communities?” asked Dr. Elliott.

She also stressed the importance of working together through partnerships with other institutions and providers in the region. “Through an annual Equity Summit, local groups and individuals assemble to highlight the needs of today’s young women, and we work collectively to figure out how to break down the barriers they face,” she said.

One recent program hosted by Carnegie Mellon’s Girls of Steel Robotics Team proved to be a real eye-opener for some of the Gwen’s Girls’ students. “Our participants learned how to build a robot during a week-long program, and while many of the girls didn’t want to get involved, we encouraged them not to knock the experience until they tried it,” explained Dr. Elliott. “At the end of the week, you could see a change in their behavior and attitude–they were confident and felt self-empowered. That’s what our group is all about!” 

Through the creation and success of Gwen’s Girls, Gwen Elliott proved that when given the opportunity, any girl can succeed. “My mom has touched many by her compassion and dedication to making the world a better place, and her spirit comes through every day when we help yet another young woman,” said Dr. Elliott.

For more information about Gwen’s Girls, visit www.gwensgirls.org.

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