Marisa Sanderson is familiar with the stare of disapproval when someone thinks she’s doing something wrong.
That someone is usually her mother. But on Tuesday, the woman looking at her could was stepping into a new role in Marisa’s life.
Marisa, a 16-year-old sophomore at Weequahic High School in Newark, likes to talk and that’s what she was doing during a program for girls in the gymnasium.
A group of women were there, promising to be mentors, but Marisa was chatting away with a friend and trying to avoid that motherly glare from Flohisha Johnson.
Every time that Marisa looked up, she saw Johnson, a Newark parent, looking right back. The scene was an example of nonverbal communication at its best.
“She kept making eye contact with me, but, in my heart, I felt like she was reaching out to me,” Johnson says.
So Johnson started walking toward Marisa. She was talking loudly, pointing at the girl with each step. You thought she might scold her until everyone heard Johnson say, “You’re going to be my baby.” She was picking Marisa as a student to mentor.
Johnson sat down beside Marisa and gave the kid a hug that only a mother could give as everyone looked on.
She did it so the girls could understand that the contingent of nearly 30 women were serious about being a part of their lives.
Many of the girls say it’s about time an effort like this was geared toward them.
Since the start of the school year, they noticed the fellas getting a lot of attention: Mayor Ras Baraka has visited the school to talk to the boys. Representatives from his My Brother’s Keeper mentoring program were there, too. Then a crowd of men showed up at the start of a school day to greet the boys and speak with them.
It’s all part of Baraka’s campaign to get men involved with young Newark males — to change a culture of violence that many of them get caught up in.
The girls say they understand what the boys are up against, but, hey, being a teenager cuts both ways in their minds.
“Girls need help, (too),” says Hana Covington, a 16-year-old junior.
She and several friends, including Myesha Green, 17, and Kenyetta Baker, 16, approached principal Lisa McDonald and wanted to know what was in store for them.
McDonald says the girls at Weequahic need just as much support as the boys. There’s bullying and molestation, abusive relationships and social isolation when they try to fit in. Some kids are teen mothers, others are homeless or they’re dealing with mental illness.
“We’re reacting to it as a school, but at the end of the day, whose really talking to them to really get them through it?” she says.
That’s where the women come in. Rev. Louise Scott-Rountree, manager of Newark’s Office of Clergy Affairs, heard from the school that the girls felt left out. She got the women together — and there they were at 8 a.m. Tuesday, doling out enthusiastic encouragement at the school’s entrance.
Myesha Green got a hug and a kiss, and described the welcome as sweet and sincere.
Heartfelt stories shared by the women helped the girls to appreciate the visit even more. Among the many messages of inspiration that the women told the girls was to love themselves and that the past doesn’t determine their future.
The girls seemed to be convinced after listening to Valerie Seymoure, of East Orange, who told them of how her father molested her when she was a child. At one point, she explained that she was on drugs, too, but turned her life around through faith. Seymoure now runs “Beauty for Ashes,” a nonprofit community organization that helps the homeless and people with HIV/AIDS.
“So many of them (girls) are being molested and they aren’t telling anybody,” Seymoure says. “If I can help one of them, then may be they can tell their counselor.”
Standing in a small circle of girls after the program, Kisha Baldwin explained how she’s now pursuing her doctorate, despite not being able to read well when she was 13 years old. She is now the executive coordinator of the mayor’s My Brother’s Keeper program.
Alexis Trusty, with tears in her eyes, apologized to the girls — saying the women should have come long before now to be with them. She told them how she once ran the streets of Newark with the wrong crowd, but overcame her difficulties and now serves as a city youth coordinator.
“I love you she,” she told the girls. “You are a reflection of me.”
The girls were looking for this kind of truth, a prerequisite they needed to open up and share their stories.
After being singled out, Marisa says she would like to hang with Johnson. Who wouldn’t? That day in gym was Marisa’s birthday and Johnson had everybody singing to her.
Plus, Johnson kept her word that she would stay in touch.
She called Marisa’s mother yesterday morning to introduce herself and to promise she would always be in the young girl’s corner.