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A Fairy-tale night for foster care Cinderellas

John L. Mitchell

LOS ANGELES — There’s a fairy tale of sorts in the story of how a group of girls from a foster care program in Compton blossomed into beautiful debutantes at a Cinderella Ball.The tale begins with 29 teenage girls and young women who gathered over the course of three weeks at the Pepperdine University campus in Malibu. They were there to be schooled in the basics of life, to learn how to confront their worst fears about their childhoods and to map their emancipation from the foster care system.The story climaxes with a ball, a coming-out party for 11 of the older girls, young debutantes who, for one night, dressed in white gowns and waltzed with tuxedoed escorts across the marbled floors of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.”Cinderella is more than a tale of a girl who lost a shoe and found a prince,” said Kenadie Cobbin, director of the HerShe Group, the mentoring organization behind the camp and ball. “She is the journey of a girl who is treated like an outsider, but dares to follow her dreams, and in the end achieves them.”Although the denouement of the story has yet to be written, the beginning is frighteningly familiar.Almost all the girls in the program were taken from their families during some crisis and shuffled among relatives, foster families and group homes — from school to school and neighborhood to neighborhood — until, for many, the future seemed bleak.”The clock strikes 12 when they turn 18, and they’re very fearful of what that does,” Cobbin said. “They have to be adults, and they’ve never really had a chance to be children.”Connie, for one, is not enthusiastic about reaching the milestone.”I’m just not ready,” the 17-year-old said softly. “I don’t have dreams. I usually have nightmares about my past. I really don’t talk much, period.”In Los Angeles County, 18-year-olds are not automatically turned out on the street with a token bus fare and a hefty garbage bag in which to pack their belongings.Of the 21,000 foster-care children living outside their parents’ homes, the Department of Children and Family Services has placed more than one-third in transitional care, which allows young adults to delay emancipation until age 21. Nonetheless, studies indicate that pregnancy, homelessness and incarceration remain problems for the estimated 1,200 who age out of the system each year.Cobbin’s goal is to smooth the bumps in the road.Before the Cinderella camp opened in mid-July, the Los Angeles chapter of the Links Inc., a civic and charitable organization, held a formal tea for the girls.That meant the girls were acquainted by the time they checked into campus dorms, but trust didn’t come easily. At the beginning of their stay at Pepperdine University, there was little interest in sharing their stories. What’s more, their appearance — tattoos, boyish clothes, garish jewelry — was a barrier.”Is that a tongue ring in your mouth?” retired Judge Veronica McBeth, a strong backer of the program, asked one of the soon-to-be debutantes walking across the campus. “You know it’ll be hard to get a job with that in there.”The judge didn’t comment on the 16-year-old girl’s nine tattoos, including one with the numbers “5150” on the back of her neck: state Welfare and Institutions Code shorthand for someone with a mental disorder, a danger to themselves or others.”That’s the only one I really regret getting,” said Keanakay, who admitted that she didn’t immediately feel comfortable among the other girls and the women who were trying to help them.”It was the most I’ve been around women my whole life,” she said. “This is my introduction to womanhood.”The camp was split between two sessions with two age groups, one for girls ages 12 to 16, and the other for those closer to transitioning out of foster care.Morning exercise began at 6 a.m. with yoga and stretching. The girls swatted flies while riding horses and broke nails when they went rock climbing. They bowled gutter balls at a local alley and sang karaoke. There were picnics and campfires on the beach — experiences that many had never had.Mentors and role models visited the campus to teach life skills — how to balance a checkbook and fill out applications for jobs, college or apartments.The girls kept journals and told stories about their abandonment, neglect and abuse. They discussed forgiveness.”Forgiveness is really big,” Cobbin said. “They have to forgive the two most important people in their lives. To be in foster care, your mother and your father have let you down: molestation, alcohol and drugs.”Many of the younger girls in the group still have hope, still believe that their mothers will get off drugs, straighten up and come back home, she said. “The older girls have gotten beyond that and have moved to “I don’t care.”’Theresa Fair, a life-skills coach at the session, said she had learned that maternal hatred could lead to self-hate.”I used to hang with guys because they would stroke me and tell me I was cute,” Fair recalled, relating her experience to the girls. “But I had to be honest with myself. I had to learn to dance the dance with women. They became my mirrors and my shadows. I had to learn from them just who I was.”During one final session of the camp, Danielle, 17, said the most important lessons she learned came from the simple experience of being in the group.”We learned not just how to bond; we learned how to trust each other,” she said. “You can’t be sisters and have that bond unless you have trust.”As the date for the ball approached, rehearsals became intense.”Shoulder back! Stand straight! Smile! Don’t forget to smile,” implored choreographer Tyna Andrews Parish.The women were supplied with gowns, and stylists volunteered to do their hair. A West Hollywood spa prepared their nails. Makeup artists were brought in.The tab for the camp and the July 29 gala came to $82,000, raised largely through private donations and fund-raising events.Dr. Dre’s record label, Aftermath Entertainment, donated a 2006 Chevrolet Suburban and helped raise $25,000 of the money from various rappers.On the night of the ball, nearly 300 guests packed the museum’s North American mammal wing. The audience erupted in applause as the young women made their entrance, escorted by boys who also are under the supervision of the Compton office of the Department of Children and Family Services.Betty Hall was more than pleased with her foster daughter, Kim, 17, a senior at Compton High who is on the cheerleading squad and has a 3.8 grade-point average.”She is so beautiful,” she said.Hall recalled how rough around the edges Kim and her sister had been when she took them into her home.”I said I’d take her for a week, and I ended up having them for five years,” she said, watching Kim dance. “I told them, “I’m keeping these two because I believe they can change.’ They did.”The ball ended with embraces, picture-taking and promises to keep in touch. The music switched to hip-hop and the girls broke out into their own dances. They are scheduled to meet with program mentors, who will keep track of their progress over the year.


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