Metro Denver Partners program helps girls navigate teenage years

Five years after Essence Scott joined a Metro Denver Partners empowerment program for adolescent girls, a strategy she learned to navigate challenging situations still comes in handy. It turns on a phrase intended to keep her impulses in check.

“To this day, I think of the ‘lizard brain’ versus the ‘wizard brain’ when I make decisions,” said the 17-year-old senior at Denver’s East High School.

Her mother says she’s seen it in action, recalling when Essence, then in the eighth grade, resisted peer pressure to drink alcohol in a large group. Now that she’s nearing her high school graduation, Essence’s mentor through the program says the young woman is taking a considered approach as she weighs her college options.

The Denver nonprofit, a recipient of a grant from The Denver Post Community Foundation’s Season to Share, aims through its Adolescent Females Group to guide girls in Denver Public Schools through high school and on to college. Often, they come from low-income households and face other hurdles on their way to adulthood.

Karen Quinn has overseen the program in its current form since 1995. Three subgroups each take in 13 girls in a typical year, with one serving ages 9-11, another ages 12-14, and a third for girls in the older range from the Montbello and Green Valley Ranch neighborhoods.

Though the program has had to scale back during the pandemic, it plans to use the Season to Share funding to recruit and match more mentors with girls.

Quinn cited several keys to the program’s effectiveness, including that referrals are made by school staff and that the girls and their parents must be eager participants. The girls at first attend weekly group meetings aimed at developing their critical-thinking skills.

Then they receive their match — in Essence’s case, Hollee Hagen, now 32, who works for a health insurance company and had recently moved to Denver from Tucson. Hagen had experience with Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

“It’s just, I guess you’d say, a gut feeling,” Quinn said of deciding the matches. “I’ve been doing it for such a long time that it’s just been so successful in the matches that I’ve had. We’re trying to allow these girls to have long-lasting relationships with mentors — hopefully lifelong.”

Jacqueline Scott, Essence’s mother, credits the program with helping her daughter grow into a “really level-headed” teenager.

“She thinks before she reacts,” said Scott, 48. “She doesn’t always go on impulse. She steps back and assesses the situation, using a lot of the tools she was taught in the first year. It’s helped her all the way around, I don’t even know where to begin.”

Hagen said the organization was upfront about the strong commitment it was seeking.

After four years of outings and activities together, Essence now counts Hagen as an ally, a sounding board and a source of advice for dealing with teachers, grades and social dynamics at school.

“I get to talk to her about pretty much anything,” Essence said. “She’s not going to judge, and because she’s an adult, she’s going to understand because she’s more mature.”

“I’ve definitely seen her bloom out of her shell a little bit,” Hagen said during a separate interview. “And I also see more confidence in her, which I think comes with age as well.

“It’s really cool how she talks about really hard topics,” Hagen added, including a discussion the two had about domestic violence when Essence was taking part in a group project about the topic at school.

Essence is now looking at her next step, researching historically black colleges and universities as well as options in Colorado. She wants to become a teacher. Or, perhaps, someone like Quinn, who helps young people navigate life — “like a social worker for kids,” she said.

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