Space of Her Own, an Alexandria Mentoring Program, Gives Girls Room Makeovers

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

Even before the first coat of paint covered the pocked, discolored walls of the bedroom Tajá Roberts shares with her two sisters, the 11-year-old envisioned the decorating possibilities.

"It's going to be blue and orange and pink," she said, adding that she hoped for stripes on the walls. "I want the lines like on the Home Depot commercial."

Tajá, who received a room makeover yesterday as part of a mentoring program, would not be allowed to see the final product until the work was done later that evening. She had no idea that the marker-scrawled dresser would be replaced by a bright purple one with polka-dot knobs or that a wicker desk would sit where a weathered nightstand once did. Two lamps would help illuminate the room, which had remained dim even after the family borrowed a lamp without a shade from a neighbor.

One only has to look at the before and after pictures of Tajá's room and it's clear that sometimes improvements are as stark as a stained mattress replaced by a new one. But beyond the blur of trash bags being filled yesterday, a more subtle change could be seen: Tajá and her sister Ta'Janae, who was also in the program, had bonded with their mentors.

"I wish I could see her more over the summer," Tajá said of her mentor, Page Oelschig, who was painting her room. "But I still have her number."

Ta'Janae, 12, who was working on her room next door with mentor Samantha Sirzyk, described attending a tea party and going ice skating for the first time. She spoke in a whisper but is much less shy after going through the program, said her sister Diamond, 13. "She broke out of her shell," she said.

The Alexandria Court Service Unit and the Art League started the program, called Space of Her Own, in 2003 with the goal of helping low-income girls who were identified by their school as at-risk, including many who had a relative incarcerated. The hope was that adding to the girls' support systems would help keep them out of the juvenile justice system. This year, 12 fifth-graders on the east end of Alexandria participated in the program, and the group aims to expand to the west side of the city next year.

The girls are paired with mentors, whom they meet with weekly to share a healthy meal, learn about topics ranging from anger management to HIV/AIDS and work on art projects that eventually are used to decorate their rooms. The program is supported by several grants, and mentors get $350 to renovate the rooms.

Lillian Brooks, director of the Court Service Unit, said that when the program started, the rate of violence among teenage girls in the city was rising. But now, she said, that rate is dropping. Although there's no way to know whether the decrease is related to the program, Brooks said the group has tracked participants and found that 97 percent have not become court-involved.

"I really do feel this is the best thing we've done," Brooks said. "We didn't know how this thing was going to work, and it's turned out to be an unbelievable success."

Linda Odell, who also works for the Court Service Unit, said that the program initially was aimed at older girls but that workers found it was too late -- either the girls were unable to bond or had problems too overwhelming for their mentors. She said it is much more successful among the younger girls.

Oelschig, who is an interior designer by trade, said one of the best aspects of ending the program with a room makeover is that it gives the girls a lasting reminder that "you have a mentor that did this for you, that loves you and supports you." She said her main goal with Tajá's room was to bring in more light and give her furniture to encourage organization.

"I think your bedroom is definitely your most personal place. And to have a room where you feel comfortable, I just think it makes all the difference in the world in how you behave outside of that room," Oelschig said.

Perhaps the only person more excited than Tajá and Ta'Janae yesterday was their mother, Yolanda Green. It has been a hard few years for the family, made more difficult since she lost her cashier job this year. She added that the family had been displaced by a fire before moving into their current building, where the electricity is unpredictable and bugs can be a problem. Her five children share the two bedrooms.

"This helps us out a lot," she said of the makeover. "I just want my kids to be able to say, 'Ah, I can actually enjoy my bedroom.' "

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