By Heather Leszczewicz Special to Published Nov 22, 2006 at 5:20 AM Photography: Heather Leszczewicz

Many after school programs are looked at as little more than a place for students to go to stay out of trouble. Milwaukee's Pearls for Teen Girls is more than just an after school program. The group strives to educate the girls within the program while being a support base.

"Pearls basically started because (Pearls founder) Colleen Fitzgerald wanted to get involved with making a change in Milwaukee inner city youth," says Maniyya Nuruddin, Pearls' program director.

The program has been around for about 15 years and is for girls of middle school to high school age.

Nuruddin says that currently the program comprises 310 girls, but Pearls hopes to reach 500 girls by the end of 2007. Desiree Cocroft, a Pearls program coordinator, says that Pearls only has a grassroots campaign at the moment.

"(Girls hear about Pearls through) word of mouth," she says. "Other girls meet with other girls. We go to different schools; we're invited to schools for open house day."

Nuruddin says that three program coordinators each run five of Pearls' 15 groups.

"The girls meet in groups, no more that 25 girls per group, once or twice a week," says Cocroft. "We talk about different things that concern girls."

Cocroft says that conversations pertain to five focus areas: loving oneself, building relationships with others, helping hands in the community, believing the sky is the limit and striving to achieve.

"At each group meeting, we focus on one or more of those focus areas," she says. "We do a lot of teen building, group building activities. There's a form of accountability in each other."

Nuruddin says that Pearls isn't aimed at "bad" girls or poor girls.

"It really is a unification kind of program," she says. "It's not for 'bad' girls or girls in trouble. It's a positive support and leadership program. It's not for 'bad' girls, it's for girls that just need something positive in their lives."

She says that most of the girls involved in Pearls are those that would like to stay on a positive track, both from the inner city and from middle class families.

Both Nuruddin and Cocroft say that what sets Pearls for Teen Girls apart from other types of programs like it is the intimacy involved.

"Pearls is more intimate, the girls feel more comfortable to talk about issues affecting them," Cocroft says. "Whatever is talked about in Pearl group stays in Pearl group. They know it won't seep out. It's a faith place."

Girls involved in Pearls also have to set goals at the beginning of the semester and work to achieve them.

"They have to submit evidence that they accomplish the goals. Think also those goal setting makes (Pearls) different. We really track what girls set as goals; we're more on them to achieve goals," Cocroft says. "There's the incentive of a goal party -- sleepovers, going to the movies, whatever they want to do. We track goals and make sure they are doing their work. Accountability part different is from other groups, we check up on whether or not they are achieving goals."

Latasha Stevens, a senior at the Milwaukee School of Entrepreneurship, will not only graduate from high school, but she'll also leave the Pearls program. She says that Pearls has helped her in all aspects of life.

"I've been with Pearls for about four and a half years. Pearls has basically helped me personally, academically, it's helped me with my attitude, it's helped me boost my esteem and it's also helped me develop skills, like leaderships skills, communication skills, teamwork," she says. "It's helped me reach short term goals, like get good grades, boost my attendance. They help me work towards my goals and it's a support system. If I don't have anyone there for me Pearls basically helps me in any way they can."

Any girl who has been part of Pearls will always find a support system in the program, Nuruddin says. Girls will find a lasting relationship there.

Stevens agrees. Graduating from school and Pearls doesn't diminish how the program has been beneficial for her.

"I'll be an alumni from Pearls next year, but I know for a fact that Pearls will always be with me even if I leave," she says. "I will make sure I will come back with for an internship or volunteer."

Girls who will be continuing in the program feel the same as Stevens. Brittany Ambers, a junior at Marshall High School, says that the program has given her a lot.

"It gave me confidence, helped me get new friends and made me more social," she says. "I like the program. I think it's a good program for girls to stay out of trouble and to just have fun somewhere."

Heather Leszczewicz Special to

Originally from Des Plaines, Ill., Heather moved to Milwaukee to earn a B.A. in journalism from Marquette University. With a tongue-twisting last name like Leszczewicz, it's best to go into a career where people don't need to say your name often.

However, she's still sticking to some of her Illinoisan ways (she won't reform when it comes to things like pop, water fountain or ATM), though she's grown to enjoy her time in the Brew City.

Although her journalism career is still budding, Heather has had the chance for some once-in-a-lifetime interviews with celebrities like actor Vince Vaughn and actress Charlize Theron, director Cameron Crowe and singers Ben Kweller and Isaac Hanson of '90s brother boy band Hanson. 

Heather's a self-proclaimed workaholic but loves her entertainment. She's a real television and movie fanatic, book nerd, music junkie, coffee addict and pop culture aficionado.