Four years ago, I headed to the Juvenile Justice Centre to help facilitate my first ShineGirl class. I felt a bit nervous as I really did not know what to expect. It was my first time in a youth justice centre, and I was not sure if I would be able to relate to the girls who were in there, (aged between 11 to their later teens).
After meeting the girls, I quickly realised they’re just the same as any other teenage girls, who are simply trying to work out their beliefs, hopes and dreams. Our team find it such a privilege to do this journey with the girls, many whom have been victims of their circumstances and simply wanting a second chance to find their feet.
Our approach to facilitating the Shine Program at the Centre is to cover the content organically rather than the more structured way we would do it in high schools. Our focus is to create an environment where the girls feel safe enough to let their guard down. We begin the class by just hanging out and chatting with the girls, as our goal is to show them that we aren’t there to tick boxes, and that we care and want to see them do well in life.
When new girls join the group, they are often reserved, understandably trust is a huge issue for them. It doesn’t take long though for them to become comfortable with us when they see how the other girls interact with us. Generally, we find that the way the girls respond to our program depends on the type of week they have had. If they have received bad news, been denied bail or have been involved in fights it reflects in the interactions that we have with them. As a team we work hard to ensure the girls know that with whatever they are facing we are there to be a constant in their life, we are there to listen and support them.
We have heard countless stories that reveal the tough reality of what some of them have faced and the impact this course has had on them. Some girls are challenged by the concept of setting goals and having dreams for their life, for others the simple truth that they have the ‘power of choice’ is eye-opening. In one of the classes in which we talked about goals a participant shared that “I’ve achieved all my goals in life. Since I was young, my only goal has been to be locked up, because it’s safer for me in here.”
Yet there are also stories of hope, for many it is the first time they have seen that it is possible to have good friendships modelled to them. We hear comments like, “we don’t know what good friends look like. It’s usually our friends that get us in trouble, but for the first time we can see what good friends are.” Another girl recently said, “we love it when you just talk to us after the lesson is over because you’re showing us what it looks like to have good friends.” At the end of each course we always ask the girls for feedback on how we can improve our program, and I will never forget the quick response of a young girl who had been incarcerated for years saying “Nothing. What you are teaching us is what we really need to hear.”
The highlight at the end of each year is a formal event we host for the girls, where each girl gets the chance to wear a dress and heels. We get their make-up and hair done, bring in a DJ, and provide gifts to celebrate their graduation from the course. This is always the most impacting event of the year for me, seeing the girls walk down a red carpet to receive a flower. I have had so many of the girls say to me that they have never felt more valued and cared for than they do at this event. It’s a defining moment for their self-worth, to know that no matter what they’ve done their value doesn’t change.
As a team, we never take for granted the opportunity we have to help influence the trajectory of the lives of young girls who have not had a great start to life. We are able to show them a different perspective, grow in greater self-awareness and help them to consider the choices they can make for a better future.
In July after COVID lockdown was eased here in New South Wales, we were able to resume our Shine Program at the Centre and help bring some normality for the girls. It has been emotionally hard for them during the pandemic because they are not allowed visitors and have no physical contact with anyone outside of the workers and other inmates. We love these girls and our consistency in showing up each week and over the years, helps to make a difference.
CityCare Youth Worker