Alternatives for Girls
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
June 1, 2015
Follow the money awarded to organizations serving the community through grants from The Jewish Fund and you meet the most caring, empowering people. . . people like Amanda (Amy) Good, CEO and Founder of Alternatives For Girls.
A safe home, a support system, a family, Alternatives For Girls (AFG) is a Detroit-based nonprofit serving homeless and high-risk girls and young women. There’s no agency in town like it – and few models in the country come close to AFG’s range of services, which include safe shelter, street outreach, prevention and educational support, vocational guidance, tutoring, mentoring, counseling, recreational activities – a myriad of resources to break the cycle of abuse, violence and poverty, to empower girls and young women to make positive choices in life.
“Sometimes, all a girl needs is an alternative.”
Born out of necessity 27 years ago, Alternatives For Girls started with a knock on the door at the Parish Hall at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Trumbull Street in downtown Detroit.
“Do you want the long or short version of the story?” Amy asks as we sit down for the hour she’s carved out of her busy afternoon for a conversation with myJewishDetroit. If ever you’ve wondered how social entrepreneurs learn to work small miracles to create life changing agencies, Amy’s story is well worth noting.
Here’s her version, in her words, excerpted and lightly edited:
We started with an idea.
In 1985, we were living downtown in the neighborhood around Tiger Stadium and started noticing an increase in the number of girls and young women out on the street, appearing to be out of school, homeless or involved in street-based prostitution. There was this snowball dynamic. As neighbors, we started to gather and take notice.
We started to notice an increasing need.
There had to be some alternative from what we were seeing on our streets and in the neighborhoods beyond. One conversation led to another as we started talking about the needs of the girls in the neighborhood.
So we started meeting and asking questions.
We’d gather informally at first, then we organized meetings at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on the southeast side of Michigan and Trumbull. We wondered why so many girls were out there, seeming to be at-risk with no alternative places to go. We learned about a community center in the neighborhood just serving boys. Though that was not their intention, it was one of those self-perpetuating dynamics in community resources. The more boys, the less girls feel welcome and comfortable.
So we started a project.
We took on the name Alternatives For Girls with the goal to get a handle on the needs of young girls and women in the neighborhood. We wanted to find out what services were available and to link up the needs with resources. And we thought the project might take only a year.
We had no intention of becoming an agency . . . but
We raised a little money, hired two part-time social workers and started to provide services on a small scale to a few girls and families in the neighborhood. We started a community survey, interviewed people throughout southwest Detroit – families, block club leaders, service providers, police, doctors, elected officials, business owners, all kinds of people with interest or a stake in the neighborhood, asking them what they could see going on with girls.
A project that I took on was research (though I still had my full-time job in social work with abused and neglected children). I started looking around the country, trying to find a street program that was aimed at girls.
I found just eight street-based programs in the country. (This was before the internet.) But none were focused on girls. And there wasn’t a single street outreach program that I could find that was focused exclusively on girls.
So we started with a community forum in June of 1987.
Asking the question, what needs to be done, we came to three conclusions:
One: To focus on children lost in the foster system. Fact: when children grow up in the foster system, the state provides for them until their 18th birthday — and sometimes beyond that to their 21st birthday. But if a child becomes homeless – out on the streets on her own, at the age of 17 or 16 or sometimes even 15, the state is not likely to open up a case for her. She cannot go into an adult shelter because there are all kinds of regulations regarding minors. Hence, adult shelters generally don’t hold a license to house minors who are homeless by themselves – without family. So, there’s this huge dangerous gap where the most vulnerable population imaginable has no place to go.
Two: Outreach to girls and women prostituting on the street. In a gentle, respectful and caring way, we wanted to be a compassionate, reliable and resourceful presence out there, one that recognizes the circumstances and humanity of young women on the streets. So often we hear the expression “sweeping” girls and women off our streets . . . onto somebody else’s streets. We wanted to provide alternatives.
Third: Prevention. We determined that if we were going to try to drum up some resources and invest in crisis intervention in girls and young women who were homeless and involved in street- based prostitution, we also would do some prevention to help girls and women stay in their families and stay in school.
So we got to work.
We set out to find agencies to step up to the plate and provide the needed services. (At this point, I had decided to quit my job and volunteer full-time – with the moderate assurance that I had saved up enough money to support myself for a year.)
We soon learned. . .
What every nonprofit knows: that the needs always are greater than the resources. As was the case then and to this day, there are gaps in our social safety net for teenage girls who are not in the foster care system and are too young for the adult shelter system. There is no steady stream of funding for girls on the street. And prevention is always difficult to fund – so much more so than crisis intervention, because it is less dramatic, more difficult to document the impact of the work.
It was a discouraging effort over that first summer, but in the fall two good things happened: the Parish House at St. Peter’s became available to us and we found an opportunity to write a grant proposal to HUD.
We proposed to open a shelter. . .
We didn’t get the grant on the first try. But I was available, had experience working in group homes, and started training volunteers with the goal to open a shelter in April,1988.
Then, on a freezing, bitter cold day in January, a 16-year-old girl knocked on the door of the church where we had free office space. She had heard that we were starting a shelter. I spent a couple of hours with her and could not find a single place for her to go. She had no family, nobody in her circle that she knew who was safe and able to take her in.
So we just looked at each other and said, “We’re starting today…”
As Amy describes, opening the doors of the church to Alternative For Girls – a non-sectarian organization – was an intensive effort, a “crazy time, calling in all volunteers (including the pastor of the church), to take shifts around the clock.” Five beds were opened and filled within a week. Volunteers started writing checks for groceries, bedding and other necessities. They built a makeshift kitchen, managed meals with the bare minimum.
And in April, they got a call from HUD and a windfall grant of $376,000, effective in July. Amy had no idea that they were that close in the first round to securing that money. But they had stayed in the game, playing for keeps, pushing on, one day at a time and their persistence and hard work finally had paid off. From five beds, they expanded to 12, with a paid staff and crisis hotline, 24-7. They bought a van, outfitted it with supplies; they gained their license to operate a shelter – they became a safe place for girls and women to turn. At last.
And still AFG is the only game in town in much of what they do – still identifying the three principal areas of their work as shelter, outreach and prevention — with the mission to help girls and young women avoid violence, teen pregnancy and exploitation and to help them explore and access the resources and opportunities necessary to be safe and strong as they take their paths in life.
Now, in a beautiful two-story building to call home on West Grand Boulevard, AFG has evolved into a multi-service agency, a shelter and a community center with an operating budget of $4.3 million, a staff of 77 employees and the support of more than 200 volunteers and service partners.
In 27 years, Alternatives For Girls has won the hearts, the minds and hands of thousands of girls, women and volunteers of all ages and walks of life. And, of course, there have been many corporate and philanthropic partners along the way. From The Jewish Fund, for example, AFG received a three-year $150,000 grant, starting in 2012, to expand the agency’s walk-in and phone-line services to a comprehensive Resource Center providing on-site crisis and health programing. In 2013, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit followed with a Special Gift of $20,000 from their Fund to provide for the purchase of a new van.
“There always is a story behind the story,” says Amy, “and there are also always numbers behind the numbers. AFG works because of the hundreds of relationships that grow between the teens and women who seek our help and our wonderful staff which includes young women who started as young girls who first walked through our doors for a meal, or a safe place to stay, for our Resource Center or crisis counseling, for tutoring after school or the tools needed to stay in school, for leadership training programs, family activities, summer camp and traveling experiences. Today there are hundreds of reasons to seek Alternatives For Girls, and we are thankful for each and every one.”
Volunteer opportunities at AFG range from street outreach to tutoring to gardening. We match volunteers with the best opportunities according to their individual interests. For more information or for an AFG wish list, click here.