Last week, MT spoke with AFG CEO Amy Good about her organization's good work. Here's what she had to say.
Metro Times: For an organization with as good a name as Alternatives for Girls has, I'm vague on the details of what your group does, other than help "at risk" girls. How does it all work?
Amy AG: Of course we have a formal mission, which is that we help homeless and high-risk young girls and women. We help them avoid violence, pregnancy, and exploitation. And we help them access support that they need to be safe, to grow strong, and make positive choices, primarily where we're located, in southwest Detroit.
MT: And how do you do that?
AG: We do it in lots of different ways, but primarily through prevention, outreach, and shelter. For instance, there's our prevention program. We work with girls who are from kindergarten all the way to high school, and to some extent beyond. We help them stay in school, and we help their families help them stay in school, graduate from high school, and aim for college. We do a lot of work that's not necessarily academic, even though it's aimed at helping them stay in school: developing leadership skills, building resilience, and staying out of gangs and avoiding pregnancy and drugs and alcohol and violence. And they do.
MT: What's your outreach component?
AG: We drive down the streets at all hours of day and night and find women who are involved in street-based prostitution or sex trafficking. We're really the only compassionate presence out there. We don't shove things down people's throats. We don't push people toward making decisions. We provide information, resources, and support, so they can be well-informed about the risks involved and the various choices they have. A lot of women involved in street-based prostitution either have few choices or just believe they have few choices. But sometimes you can tell them about options they didn't know about. We provide concrete help, a sandwich, a cup of coffee, what we call hygiene kits, and harm-reduction kits to help them reduce their risks a little bit if they're going to continue. We do not pass judgment; we do not impose any agenda on them. And if they decide they want to take some steps to exit prostitution and street life, we're here. And if not, we'll keep on looking for them and connecting with them. And connected to that, we do a lot of support groups and survivor groups.
MT: Then there's the shelter.
AG: Yes. We house, shelter, and serve homeless young girls and women between the ages of 15 and 21. They're too old for the foster care system and too young for the adult shelter system, and they're homeless by themselves, not in the foster or juvenile justice systems. Some are pregnant, some are parenting, some both, some neither. We help them get safe, get healthy, get their education on track, get a job, and when they're ready, we help them move into independent living or interdependent living, and in some ways that's where the really important work begins.
MT: How so?
AG: We help them set down roots and build a positive support network in their community so they can support themselves and not be in a vulnerable place where they're subject to exploitation.
MT: I saw on your fact sheet that you have a lot of successes.
AG: Some of these girls really grow up at AFG. In fact, we have a lot of young women who've done really great. Raquel Castañeda-Lopez, who's on the City Council, grew up at AFG.
MT: No kidding?
AG: I would never say that without her permission, but she's put it on her website. Yeah, so we can brag about a City Councilmember. Raquel and many of her sisters, they were an AFG family. My philosophy is that in order to strive, children — and adults, for that matter — need to be able to experience contributing. So we have a lot of programs where the girls and women do community service, and they develop leadership skills and they look around them and identify issues that need to be addressed in their neighborhoods and communities and they come up with a plan and they do something about it. They impact their neighborhoods and understand what they're capable of and that their neighborhood really needs them.
MT: I don't think that's something so many people realize: If you're homeless or in poverty, one of the things you're deprived of is the ability to contribute in any meaningful way.
AG: Yeah. We all know how great it feels to do something for someone else, and everybody deserves that. And all of the girls we work with have the capacity to contribute. For some it might be in a lot of different ways, from simply teaching somebody how to do something to leading a movement in their neighborhood to get a stop sign put up or a building torn down or to get the city to respond to the epidemic of stray dogs.
MT: I think a lot of people who feel economically secure don't realize how easy it is to become homeless, especially for women.
AG: That is so true. And for young people. Lots and lots of people are in accidents and a few months away from eviction or foreclosure. And we've had plenty of girls in the shelter who remember a recent time in their lives when their families were really stable. I think of all the stories I know. Maybe the girl's mother became ill or died, and the father was so distraught he descended into addiction and abandoned the children. And relatives who'd promised to pitch in weren't there.
MT: That's how it happens. I also think a lot of people tend to attach a moral judgment to poverty and homelessness. But these are just kids, right? They didn't do anything wrong.
AG: That's right. It's so true. The girls and young women in our shelter, for the most part, have really not made the decisions that contributed to their homelessness. In most cases, they've been survivors, surviving on their own, even taking care of younger siblings in very difficult situations.
MT: I'm sure any donations or volunteers you can get make a huge difference.
AG: We get most of our funding from grants, public and private, some corporate. Also, a lot of individuals. The shelter is obviously the most expensive part of what we do, and we don't get any per diem funding for what we do. Getting those grants is competitive — sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. That restricts your flexibility. So the individual contributions that we get are critical.
MT: So if people are concerned about the host of issues that could affect young women, from teen pregnancy to drug abuse to sex trafficking, they can offer their time or money to help an organization with a stellar track record?
AG: Yeah. I love it! That's a great summary.
MT: You've worked with young women for 27 years now. Some must come back, right?
AG: Definitely. And we hear from them. We have women on our staff who have been here as participants. We also hear from people who've been here a ways back. Last year, we got a letter at Christmastime from a woman who'd been here 15 years ago or more. She'd been homeless, kicked out of her mother's house, had no place to go, and struggled through some really difficult times before she found us. She got safe, got stable, got a job, went back to school. It wasn't easy for her, but she worked her way through school and now has two children and a good job. And she sent us $200. It sounded like she didn't have a lot to spare, but she and her two daughters had talked about it and decided what they wanted to do for Christmas was give $200 to Alternative for Girls. That was really moving. mt