This is a letter to my mommy. Talking with my mommy is what I miss most! There is so much that I want to tell her even though, in truth, I am very aware that she already knows.
It's clear that you have been working with GOD to guide our steps in ways that are helpful to others. We first set up this foundation in your name. We determined the mission and focus of the organization would be on educating St. Petersburg youth because that was so clearly your passion. We've decided to bring this mission to life in two ways thus far.
First, your running partner, Ms. Gladys has rallied EVERYONE around distributing books to children! She and others (including Pops, Angela and Nat) are present at every community event with a table filled with books that children can choose from and take home. For many, it's the first book they've owned. The group has given away hundreds of books since you left us! The need is clear and they are delivering.
The second initiative we've undertaken is the South St. Pete. Girls initiative. This is an effort to bring support programs into the community designed to improve literacy, educational performance and self esteem among our girls. The statistics in our community have gotten pretty bad mommy. There are over 20,000 girls living here. 25% of the families are living on incomes below the federal poverty level. Poverty is affecting the same families generation after generation. Crime rates are high. Only about 60% of our high school girls are graduating. Teen pregnancy among African American girls living in St. Pete. is three times the national average! It's really tough to grow up and become a positive, hopeful young girl here in our community. We have to do something to restore the future of these girls and help them defy these statistics!
Ultimately, we believe the SPPF South St. Pete. Girls initiative can be a catalyst to improve graduation rates and college admissions as well as reducing teen pregnancy rates in our community. We started this summer by bringing together Girls Incorporated and UPA (University Preparatory Academy) -- on 10th Street, in the heart of the community -- to host a ten-week summer camp for girls aged 5 to 17. We gave $50,000 and raised an additional $35,000 to fund this program. It was an amazing success!! We had 57 girls enrolled and they had a fun-filled, very busy summer. They had incredibly engaging teachers who guided them through the Summer Bridge literacy programs, college testing vocabulary preparations, STEM activities and self esteem building exercises. They went on great field trips to the pool (with swimming lessons), the zoo, skating, the Nature Preserve and many others. Great speakers came to visit with the girls to talk about their work and careers. One fun example was Ms. Meg Delgato from St. Pete. College who brought sharks in for the girls to dissect -- they were wildly excited about that project. My friend Talitha, a scientist I met at Merck, talked to the girls about the contributions and careers of black scientists. The girls were very intrigued and impressed by Talitha, especially her salary!
Our family was instrumental to the program's success. Cassandra was the on-site program director and kept everything running smoothly. Auntie Judy served lunch for the entire ten weeks. Mariah taught for six weeks! Des and Tomeka built and planted a wonderful vegetable garden with the girls and gave them a tennis lesson. Sara worked as a Teachers Assistant for two weeks. Leigh & Martha taught a character development session that the teachers are still using. Angela, Juliette, Eliot and Pops did WHATEVER we asked of them to contribute to recruitment, promotion, programming, funding, etc. We adopted a new family member, Ms. Ginger, who went out of her way to help with lunch service, fund raising and generally making the girls feel special. As for me, I did what I do -- I wrote grants, connected people, secured resources, bought supplies, solicited feedback and pushed for adaptations to the Girls Inc. programming to ensure a fit with the needs of our girls. I also spent as much time as I could with the girls. The girls have inspired me. Every time I was with them I thought of you. I hugged them and I remembered you telling our girls "We hug in this family; even when we are mad, we hug!" I talked to them about kindness and supporting each other and collaboration and I thought about you saying to me "Girl, you know you need to say something inspirational, right?" I told them they could be ANYTHING they choose to be. I see me in them so I told them what you told me.
Again the need is clear and our response is delivering. We prevented summer learning loss for virtually all of the girls involved in the program. In fact, many of the girls posted learning gains in the Summer Bridge work. You would have been extremely proud of the SAT vocabulary mastery the older girls demonstrated in their Jeopardy competition during the last week. Equally important, we saw improvements in the positive attitudes, language and confidence of the girls during the program. It was clear that they were inspired to achieve and their confidence in sharing their achievements grew. The older girls actually treated each other with more respect and kindness too!
Going forward, we are now working on sustaining a connection to the girls that attended the camp and their families. We are taking the middle school and high school girls to a STEM conference next month. We are working to get tutors in place for the girls at UPA. We are working with the National Society of Black Engineers to start a Jr. Society at UPA which would engage in after-school STEM activities. We are also looking for other field trips that can bring the girls together throughout the year. Pops has joined the Board of Girls Incorporated and he and Ms. Ginger are working with the Board to follow through on plans for a Spring Break Camp and a Summer Camp for 2016 as well as finding funding for an after-school program at UPA in 2016. I have pulled together a group of Community Advocates on the South St. Pete. Girls Advisory Board that will connect us to additional resources to be leveraged in this work.
As the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation, we view our role as continuing to raise funds, raise awareness and bring resources and action to bear on the issues affecting the education of the children of South St. Petersburg. This is OUR village. These are OUR children. While many of the resources will come from outside the community, it is incumbent on those of us within the community to act now to access and activate those resources of behalf of our children. Thank you, mommy, for being a presence that inspired others to greatness in life and for continuing to inspire all of us even in death. I love you and I miss you!
Bridgette P. Heller