First, a little backstory…
In the fall of 2009, the audience for TheYoungMommyLife.com (my baby, my brand, my everything!) had doubled from the previous year, and I was looking for some way to give back. It was part experiment/part altruism. I searched for an organization that I could host a fundraiser for, and after a couple of quick Google searches, I found The National Crittenton Foundation. And they found me.
The National Crittenton Foundation is actually a nationwide network of nonprofit organizations, with local agencies dedicated to young women and the challenges they face: transitioning out of the foster care system, teen pregnancy, juvenile justice, sexual abuse and exploitation.
It’s all very heavy stuff (and reminds me of how much work there still is to do) but the amazing thing about the foundation and all of its staff members is how upbeat and confident everyone is. Smiles on everyone’s faces and great big mama-bear hugs – it’s not hard to imagine how these women are able to have such an impact on young women all over the country.
The overwhelming emotions you feel when observing the Crittenton women: safe. Secure. Loved. Supported. I was excited to join the Crittenton women (and men) for their annual meeting this year at Disney World. They are kicking off a new initiative, Assets for Life, which is a new effort that builds off so much of the work they’ve already done. They are increasing their services to provide these young women with more assistance in the way of job readiness training, career exploration, mental health recognition, nutrition and much more…
Day 1 was a welcome reception to introduce us to each other and give us the chance to network. I enjoyed the food (the crab cakes were delish!) but I enjoyed the conversations even more. I sat a table with several different executive directors, discussing the impact of their teen pregnancy prevention programs in D.C. Teaching the girls to be able to distinguish a healthy relationship from a toxic one, surrounding the girls with people who genuinely wish to see them succeed – all of it creates an atmosphere where the teens know what they want and if pregnancy would postpone those dreams.
Day 2 began with “the Heart of Crittenton,” personal stories from young women impacted by Crittenton agencies. One by one, the women stood up. Some proud, some confident (and some a little nervous) to tell their stories. They spoke of the sexual abuse suffered by the hands of their fathers, stepfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers; the drug use they engaged in to medicate the pain; the abusive relationships they were in with their child’s father(s) and how they found the courage to leave.
I saw a group of beautiful (and I mean REALLY beautiful), intelligent, strong women who were survivors. Survived years of abuse at the hands of people they thought loved them and emerged triumphant, persistant in persuing their dreams. I walked away from these women in awe.
One young woman stood up and talked about her drug abuse and how she checked into rehab at age 14, prompted by a positive pregnancy test. “If it wasn’t for getting pregnant…I honestly don’t know if I’d be here, if I’d be alive. I knew I had a little person depending on me now…I couldn’t let him down.”
Yet another stood in front of us and described being physically assaulted by her parents, but having the courage to tell someone and get out. She ended up at a Crittenton agency and is now in college, a proud mommy of one.
One tearful story included a young woman from Sierra Leone, who was 3 years old when a civil war broke out. She still remembers the brutal murders she witnessed, seeing arms, limbs and heads, chopped off.
Another young woman ran away from home after being repeatedly molested by a friend of the family and became pregnant shortly thereafter, homeless and sleeping under a broken street light. She then went to a Florence Crittenton home to get assistance. “At the hospital, when I was in labor, they asked me where I lived,” she recalls. “It felt so good to say that I lived at Inwood House versus a staircase on the street.”
Wow. How wonderfully powerful that is. The Crittenton family of agencies has stories like this by the thousands. So many young women have been impacted in ways that we can only begin to imagine.
Jeannette Pai-Espinosa, executive director of the national organization, is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and it is apparent to me, after meeting her a few times and being in her presence, that she is the perfect person to be the head of this organization.
She spoke of the staff’s dedication to their girls: “The past of the young women that come through our doors does not determine their future,” Jeannette said. “It’s not just a job….it’s more like a social movement that supports the empowerment of girls. Our movement is stronger than its ever been.”
I, for one, am proud to be part of that movement and will be dedicating more space to the issues that young women, like the women I met at the annual meeting, have to face every day. This is more than a blog post – this is call to arms. Who’s with me?