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Invisible no more: Alternatives For Girls looks back on 25 years of of ‘doing right’ for Detroit

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Angela K. Elliott remembers all too well how she ended up that night outside Alternatives For Girls. It was 1988, and Elliott was among the first to move into AFG’s shelter in the basement of St. Pete’s Episcopal Church in Detroit.

Her parents had pretty much dumped her and her baggage — physical and emotional — out of their lives. Her options? Homeless and broke, she really had none.

logo AFGElliott and her new-found support system did have a few things in common. AFG was only a year old at the time, so it too was trying to figure out what it was, where its strengths were and whether it had a future. Despite their challenges – Elliott’s lack of family structure, AFG’s seemingly insurmountable goals of saving girls and young woman – they both figured out what they had to do to survive and thrive.

And thrive they did. Elliott, who now serves as a bank manager and officer in Pennsylvania, returned to Detroit this week to help her beloved AFG celebrate its 25th anniversary. She served as the emcee for the non-profit organization’s 23rd annual Role Model Dinner, an event that honors female business and social leaders who are Metro Detroit’s great success stories.

They called the event “Silver Linings,” a reminder that when all of life may seem at its lowest or darkest point, there is an alternative. There is hope.

Ah, hope. Detroit enters spring in such a precarious state. We have an Emergency Manager, and bankruptcy remains a possibility. The mood, like the weather, is mostly gray. So when I arrived the the Fillmore Thursday evening for the anniversary dinner, it was a pleasant surprise to see the full house of friendly faces, the many generous auction donations and the many young women happy to talk about their experiences and show off their hosting skills.

The evening also honors those young women who stories are still developing. Take AFG resident Shameeka Walthall. She is a young mom, getting training in life skills and parenting while staying in the AFG Shelter. On top of all that, she is working toward a nursing degree. She was the ideal choice to introduce one of the night’s award winners, Dr. Patricia Maryland, president and CEO of St. John Providence Health System.

Here are two women who are in such different circumstances in many ways. Dr. Maryland noted how having her parents’ support was paramount to her belief in her own abilities and, ultimately, her growth as a woman and a business person. Dr. Maryland accepted the award with humility, hugging Walthall tightly and noting several times how she felt inspired to be in the same room with those on this mission. She repeated several times to the audience that she did not deserve such an honor.

Some background. Alternatives For Girls (AFG) is a Detroit-based 501(c)3 nonprofit serving homeless and high-risk girls and young women. Since 1987, AFG has provided services such as shelter, street outreach and educational support, vocational guidance, mentoring, prevention activities and counseling. The goal is to empower the girls and young women it serves to make positive, life-changing choices.

AFG hopes to help these girls, some homeless and many in high-risk circumstances, avoid violence, teen pregnancy and exploitation, such as prostitution. It was the Southwest Detroit community, individuals and parents, that noticed so many girls turning down these paths who started AFG, hoping to find that much-needed physical and emotional shelter for the city’s so-called “invisible population.”

Originally a small, volunteer-run program, operating a five-bed emergency shelter in a neighborhood church, AFG has evolved into a multi-service agency with more than 50 employees. These days, it is housed in a two-story brick building constructed in 2002 following the successful completion of a $4.5-million capital campaign.

cakeSince then, this model for social-service agencies has helped more than 105,857 girls and young women in some capacity. It has provided 112,294 nights of care – and counting. More than 3,633 women have received shelter. And they have fielded in excess of 44,441 calls on its crisis line. And, sadly, those numbers are also still growing.

The girls who have used its services call it “lifesaving,” “necessary,” “empowering” and “compassionate.” Elliott calls AFG’s Amy L. Good (its CEO) her surrogate mother. Good said the original founders had no idea what the first 25 years would bring AFG…but she knows the organization will be around – must be around – for the next 25 years to see what they too will bring.

This group, Good says, closes the holes in society’s safety net, making sure these girls have somewhere to fall when they stumble. In return, girls grow into women like Elliott, who return time and again to give back and “do right.”

That is indeed worth celebrating.

To learn more about Alternatives For Girls, its next educational open house will be held at 9 a.m. Thursday, March 28. For more information or to RSVP, please contact its Volunteering Department at (313) 361-4000 ext. 280 or volunteering@alternativesforgirls.org.

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