WILKES-BARRE – Just a few months ago, like many teenagers, 15-year-old Molly Askew had major self-confidence issues.
Then, she heard about the Magnolia Project.
I went to an open house and I fell in love with it. The girls are very nice and the program is a big success, said Askew, a sophomore at West Side Career and Technology Center from West Wyoming.
I wear a lot less makeup. I feel more self-confident and open. I'm breaking out of my shell. I'm a lot less shy. I actually talk to people, said a beaming Askew.
The Magnolia Project is a mentoring program for girls in grades nine through 12 that offers a variety of activities every week, said project manager Shannon Doyne.
Everything we do seeks to build leadership qualities and … skills whether it's leading them through their own lives or whatever it is they're going through – and every teenage girl is going through something, said project mentor Melissa Langan.
We have activities based on how to have great communication skills or how to find a professional role model to connect with. We've had offers of job shadowing, we've had people come and share their personal life stories to show the girls your road may not be straight or may be a little crazy along the way, but you can make your own pathway to success, Langan said.
Daisy Lavatch, a 15-year-old freshman at Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, said she joined the Magnolia Project this past summer because it seemed like it would be a fun thing to do.
And it has been, based on her enthusiasm describing activities.
We saw donkeys on the first day, did present wrapping for Valley Santa, boxed food for the CEO. … We did interviews. I was scared at first, but then it wasn't that bad. I've made a lot of new friends. It's actually helping me become less shy, Lavatch said.
Askew appreciates visits from guest speakers. I like to find out about them and their struggles when they were teenagers and then later in life, she said.
A program of Volunteers of America, the Magnolia Project is based at a storefront on South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre, but two schools provide space for the project at the schools. The program is funded mostly through developer Robert Mericle's plea agreement regarding the kids for cash juvenile court scandal. But that funding won't last forever, and the only other sources are fundraisers and donations.
The project got its name from Doyne's magnolia tree that has managed to survive the tough winters here. The girls in the program are much like her tree – blossoming in a hard climate.
Some of the girls' activities are designed to help others.
We do a lot of volunteer work through Volunteers of America. When you're serving others, I believe you serve yourself and you're able to lose yourself and your problems, Langan said.
Others are designed to help the girls be stronger individuals.
(Last) Saturday, for instance, they climbed a rock wall at Wilkes University, Doyne said. The idea behind that is you don't know how strong you are until you try and you don't know what the support of other people being around you can do for you until it's you up there trying to make that next climb. … Some people are afraid of heights, or just embarrassment – that's a huge fear.
Last week, project mentor Angeline Abraham took the girls to Misericordia University for a Kwanzaa celebration. In addition to exploring diversity, socializing and having fun, the girls asked to visit the library, they experienced some of the college atmosphere and talked with a college student.
Our goal is to also introduce these girls to life beyond the walls that they're limited to Monday through Friday from 8 to 3, … life beyond that lunchroom or that classroom or that bully or maybe that subject that irritates you, Abraham said.
In addition to weekly activities, girls can have a 30-minute mentoring session, one-on-one, with Abraham, Langan, Doyne or a trained volunteer once a week.
And that can be what they want it to be. … Some girls keep it very superficial at first and talk about pets or hairstyles or something. Others, when they're ready … can begin to talk more about relationships or what life will be like after high school, anything they want to run by us, Doyne said.
Sometimes parents just don't understand, and it can take an outside person with a different perspective sometimes to help work through issues or problem-solve together, brainstorm, just encourage, she said.
We've had some girls say, ‘I'm just not used to having somebody listen to me.' And no one should feel like that, Langan said.
A trip for 50 to New York City:
• Bus fare – $1,750 ($35 per person)
• Guided tour of the United Nations – $800 ($16 per person)
• Lunch – $600 ($12 per person)
• Museum tour – $1,000 ($20 per person)
Storefront rent/utilities: $800/month for six months – $4,800
Grand total: $7,950
The project needs volunteers. Project mentor Melissa Langan said she and other mentors have found that many people want to help but don't know how.
We ask, ‘What was your trade? What was your passion? What was your experience when you were 15 or 16 or 17? What advice would you give yourself if you could go back?' It's very easy for people to become involved, Langan said.
I think everyone can respond to and want to support a program that helps develop the youth. People say, oh, there's nothing for kids to do in the area. Well, there is. You just have to know about it and be part of it, she said. Search for The Magnolia project | Volunteers of America on Facebook or call 825-5261 to learn more.
The Magnolia Project is one of five nonprofit organizations or their programs featured in this year's GivingGuide. Donations can be sent to: Volunteers of America, 25 N. River St., Wilkes-Barre, PA 18702. Checks should be made payable to The Magnolia Project. When donations are made, please note TL Giving Guide in your letter or on the memo line of the check.