Shanee Alston first began coming to the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center at 5460 N. 64th St. as a young teenager. “I’ve always been fond of this place,” said Alston. “This is where I grew up and what made me, ‘me.’”
Today, Alston is back at Silver Spring as a social development coordinator for the Loving and Developing Yourself (LADY) program, which focuses on teen pregnancy prevention and life skills development.
“It was actually a program I grew up in, so I knew how important the role was,” said Alston, who also coaches the girls dance team and teaches 4th and 5th grade in the Community Leaning Center (CLC) at Browning Elementary, the adjoining Milwaukee Public School. “A lot of them remind me of myself when I was younger. All the issues they come across, I’ve been through it.”
“She had her struggles,” said Anthony McHenry, executive director of Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, referring to what Alston faced as a teenager. “She’s able to relate to the young ladies, not only because she went to programs here, but because she actually lived in Westlawn and had to deal with similar issues.”
Alston runs the discussion-based LADY meetings twice a week and she says that almost a dozen teens attend on a regular basis. She also offers support to the girls outside of the center — welcoming texts and calls regarding a variety of issues. “I consider them my babies,” she said.
The LADY program began at the height of teen pregnancy in Milwaukee during the late 1990s and early 2000s. “There was a real need to start to address girls’ issues specifically,” said McHenry. “The way to really prevent teen pregnancy is to help the girls love themselves enough to take the information that we’re giving them and implement it.”
Each month, the LADY group focuses on one specific topic, which can range from sex education and positive goal setting to applying for college and promoting self-esteem. During April, the teenagers have been learning about career exploration and job readiness.
“It’s basically development for becoming a lady,” said Charmian Williams, a junior at Riverside University High School. She explained that the LADY program has taught her everything from etiquette and financial responsibility to pregnancy prevention.
“A lot of girls our age want to find a boy and have a baby just to keep him around,” said Myana Jamison, a senior at Vincent High School. Jamison also works at Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, assisting teachers in the CLC after school.
It has been about two years since a teenager in the LADY program has become pregnant. McHenry largely attributes this to the positive peer pressure to live up to the reputation and culture that has stemmed from the program’s success. “Now there’s a real expectation in terms of graduating high school; in terms of not becoming teenage parents; in terms of coming to the center and being responsible for themselves.”
McHenry and Alston estimate that more than 1,000 teenagers have actively participated in the LADY program. Silver Spring also offers a program focused on violence prevention for young men, called the Mature and Loving Everyone (MALE) group.
Other teen-related programming at Silver Spring includes tutoring, free drivers education and ACT preparation, health and wellness activities, social development and prevention programs focused on violence and alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse.
“The community has told our young ladies and young men that their life is largely going to be living in poverty, that they aren’t worthy of excellence,” said McHenry. “That message is received in the household, at school, in the media and in the community. So part of our task is not only just to educate them on certain things, but also just to remind them that they can really choose a great life for themselves if they stay the course.”
On an average week, Jamison and Williams estimate that they spend at least 20 hours at Silver Spring. “This is like our second home,” said Jamison. “We’re always here.”
“This is a place you can come and always have someone to talk to,” added Williams. Her older sister also went through the LADY program and her whole family has been active in the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center.
“The key is really strong relationships between the kids and the staff,” said McHenry.
Those close relationships at Silver Spring have helped Williams and Jamison become ambitious young ladies.
Jamison will attend University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Alston’s alma mater, this fall. Five years down the road, she expects to be graduating college with a degree in psychology.
In five years, Williams hopes to have graduated high school and acquired her cosmetology, business and real estate licenses so that she can open a hair salon. She also would like to get a bachelor’s degree in business.
In 2013-2014, 100 percent of seniors active in Silver Spring Neighborhood Center social development programs, such as LADY, graduated from high school and 80 percent are pursuing post-secondary education.
Alston understands what a great accomplishment it is for teenagers in the LADY program to overcome the challenges and succeed. “There’s so much going on in their homes, [and] at school,” she said. “It can be discouraging to them, but a lot of the girls have hope when they come here.”