Andre Marcucci, a D.C. police officer in the gang prevention unit, walked into the Latin American Youth Center on a recent afternoon and was thronged by teenagers from the Girls Youth Leadership Program.
"What's up, Marcucci?" one asked. "How's it going?" asked another. The girls were planning a day to shadow officers to get a taste of their job, and Brenda Aviles, 16, teased Marcucci good-naturedly.
Before the leadership program, girls like Aviles were more likely to run into police because they were on the wrong side of the law than because they were interested in the officers' careers.
These days, "they're friends," said program coordinator Jasmin Benab, 28. "If it's to give the girls a hug, they'll come. If [the girls are] in trouble, they'll come."
Aimed at teenagers at risk of gang involvement, the leadership program mixes such activities as hip-hop classes with sessions on such topics as gang violence, date rape and domestic abuse. This summer, 27 girls are participating, but Benab said that during the school year, the number is closer to 80.
The program is run by the Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights, which since its founding in 1974 has offered a growing array of services that includes substance abuse treatment, transitional housing, art classes and tutoring. Many of those it serves are from immigrant families in Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant in Northwest Washington.
The program manages "to show girls there's somewhere they can go to besides doing nothing or being on the streets," said Aviles, who will be a junior at Cardozo High School in the fall. She has been coming to the center since she was 12 and joined the leadership program two years ago.
Before, Aviles said, she used to skip school, drink and get in trouble constantly. If she had not gotten into the program, she said, "I probably would have been a victim of violence."
Now Aviles has been hired as a staff member at the center. Benab said the self-assured Aviles is a leader in the program. She wants to become a pediatrician.
When Marcucci walked in, Aviles had come from practicing the group's skit and dance, which has been performed across the city. In the piece, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran and Dominican girls in T-shirts with gang colors get in a bitter fight over a boy. It turns increasingly nasty as they hurl insults in English and Spanish about each other's nationalities. The three gangs compete with hip-hop dance solos. Before violence breaks out, one girl, played by Aviles, finally blurts out that infighting among different Latin American groups is pointless. At the end of the dance, the rival groups strike a pose together.
The girls have come a long way, said Benab, who came to the youth center at 14 to enroll in its teen parent program. Flipping through a photo album she has made, Benab explained each picture: cooking classes in which the girls made tortillas from scratch, preparation for the center's Valentine's Day party, volunteer work at a nursing home, the time they met the mayor at the District's service day.
But for each cheerful moment, there's a sad one that's not in the album. Benab pulled out "Voices of Victims," a book of poetry the girls wrote whose themes include rapes, domestic violence and friends shot to death. She also brought out T-shirts the girls made, with themes about violence -- hearts broken in two and such phrases as "My Body Used to be a Temple until you took it upon yourself to enter." And she told of the problems the girls have faced, including the severe beating of one who wanted to leave a street gang. There's always the pull of the street, said Benab, but "you can't be here and outside with the same people."
Upstairs, the younger girls who just joined the program, most of them 12 to 14, were in dance class. They had spent the early afternoon making Web pages and practicing for job interviews. Because the program in the summer is integrated with the center's job opportunities and funded by the city's Department of Employment Services, the young people are paid minimum wage to participate.
Right before their dance class, the younger girls, including Aviles's 14-year-old sister, had stood transfixed as the older ones practiced a complicated new step, mastering it in a few minutes with only a couple of collisions and bursts of hysterical laughter. Now it was their turn. Some looked skeptical, others frowned in concentration and a few giggled uncontrollably. They moved as little as possible.
The choreographer turned off the music and told them to move. "You can't stand here and look cute," he said. As he danced over to the boombox to turn it back on, the younger girls stared at his feet weaving and unweaving in an impossibly fast dance step. They whispered, and a couple exchanged looks: The class would be hard.
But as the older girls looked on, their reaction was different. Aviles studied the step for a moment and turned to another girl. "We did that one," she said.