Recently, as we were driving West on Roosevelt, my 4-year-old son Patrick asked me. “Mommy, what’s that place?” Patrick asks a lot of questions. About everything. So there wasn’t a particular reason he was asking about the building we were passing except that it was a really big building and it wasn’t immediately obvious to him what it could be.
I hesitated before I answered. How do I explain to a 4-year-old that the building housed the Cook County Juvenile Court and Detention Center?
“It’s a place where kids go to get help,” I told him.
“What kind of help?” he asked. “Will I need to go there when I need help?”
Another tough question. “No,” I told him. “You’ll come to Mommy and Daddy when you need help.”
“Do the kids that go there not have Mommies and Daddies?” he asked.
Like I told you, he asks a lot of questions. Patrick just turned 4, so I didn’t want to shatter his innocence by explaining to him that the likelihood of him, as a privileged white kid, ending up there was extremely low. So I gave him some general answers to reassure him and changed the subject.
Most people who drive past probably don’t notice the building, and if they do, they don’t think much about it. I was one of those people until a year ago when a staff member at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center reached out to us to do some programming with the girls there. While juvenile arrests are declining nationwide, juvenile arrests by girls are declining at a much slower rate. So, more and more girls are entering the juvenile justice system, and they were interested in bringing in our program for those girls.
Most of the girls at JTDC come from a background of poverty and trauma. In fact, one study shows that 93 percent of the residents at JTDC have experienced trauma. So these are kids coming from tough circumstances who find themselves in a really tough situation. Our main contact at JTDC recently said to me, “No kid would choose to be here.” And she’s right. So when they reached out to us to do programming there, we couldn’t say no.
Girls in the Game started running our program at JTDC twice a week about six months ago. It was a new direction for us, and we were excited. We hired staff, met with our contact there, and secured funding. I heard about the programming a lot, but unlike our other programs where it’s easy to stop by and see how things are going, JTDC has a fair amount of security, as you can imagine. Not only do our coaches have to go through PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Training and go through their background check process, but all equipment and supplies need to be approved ahead of time and we can’t collect any personal information about participants. Bringing in visitors to the program wasn’t easy, and as we strived to provide some consistency for participants, we knew that having a constant flow of visitors wouldn’t work.
But after a few months of the program we planned a Friends and Family Day for participants, where their families could come and participate in the program with them while the girls showed them what they were learning through Girls in the Game. It was the perfect time to visit programming so I did.
I’m not really sure what I expected from the girls, but I know that I assumed they would be a more challenging group. Teenagers can be unpredictable anyway and these girls were dealing with a tougher draw in life than most. I figured there would be some reluctance to participate, some “too cool” attitudes and, if I’m being honest, some intimidating behavior.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The scheduling of Friends and Family Day was a big deal to the girls. It meant that they had an extra day that week that their families could visit. For one girl, it meant she could play basketball with her Dad. For all of them, it meant they could show their families something really positive they had been doing. The girls were thrilled to be there and excited about everything, from the volleyball we played to the snacks we were able to bring. One of the mothers was a little late, due to the security measures required to get in, so she wasn’t there when her daughter read Girls in the Game’s mission statement to the group. When her Mom finally arrived, she was so proud, that she asked if she could read the mission statement again.
I left that day with mixed feelings. I was tired for one thing – it had been a while since I had played full-court basketball! I was proud of what Girls in the Game was doing there. But I was also really, really sad for the girls. Because the one thing that was clear was that they were just kids, albeit kids dealing with some really adult situations.
When I think back to Patrick’s question about the building and what happens there, I hope there is some truth to my answer. I hope that the kids who end up there do get the help they deserve, and I hope that Girls in the Game is a part of that. Because all girls deserve the chance to grow as leaders, and by reaching out to populations that so many others ignore, we’ll be a little closer to that goal.