- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

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Glendy Escobar gave birth to a son when she was 18.

When she was 21, she had another son. She was alone, had no job and was lucky to get food for her children on a government handout.

Ms. Escobar is 22 now. She´s studying for her general equivalency diploma (GED).

She could be content as a licensed nursing assistant, but this is a new Glendy. What´s wrong with being a registered nurse? she asks. Why not aim for the top?

That´s exactly what she´s doing. Today, she´s an independent thinker who sees endless possibilities in her future.

"I used to be very shy, and I wouldn´t speak out," she says. "Now I speak my mind. Talking with other girls has helped me. We are free to have opinions. I´m far more outgoing, and I can help others by sharing my story."

The Adams Morgan resident got her confidence and found her voice at Ophelia´s House, a nonprofit organization designed to help adolescent girls and young women assert themselves and take control of their lives.

Ophelia´s House named after the tragic heroine in William Shakespeare´s "Hamlet" is the brainchild of Amanda Nevers, a former counselor at Mary Center, a maternal and child health center on Ontario Road NW.

Last spring, Ms. Nevers envisioned a safe place where teen girls many of them unwed mothers could meet after work to discuss their "issues" and find solutions for daily dilemmas. A year later, the teens meet twice a month for these discussions.

Twice a month, Ophelia´s House hosts Dinners for Change at a Columbia Heights home in Northwest. Along with a piping hot, balanced meal, the girls get a chance to share their experiences and talk about whatever subject they choose in a warm and inviting environment. Volunteers entertain the children for a couple of hours to give the mothers a breather.

By just listening, Ms. Nevers, 25, has gleaned lots of insight. Some of the teens´ concerns included how to prepare for Scholastic Assessment Tests (SATs), apply to colleges, determine skills and land a job with good interviewing techniques. Some wanted to know how to get a GED, while others sought answers about how to embrace an overwhelming job as a parent when one is a teen-ager, Ms. Nevers says.

"One of the main things Ophelia´s House tries to combat is teen depression, especially among teen-age mothers, who are the most isolated of groups," she says.

"Ophelia´s House brings the girls together and gives them something to look forward to. They have a forum, and we talk about politics, race and the media, domestic abuse and sexual harassment at public events like the Puerto Rican Day Parade" that resulted in violence in New York´s Central Park, the bilingual executive director says. Watching TV is discouraged, and lively discourse is encouraged.

A 1997 Dartmouth College graduate, Ms. Nevers befriended lots of young women at Mary Center during her three years as a caseworker. That´s where she met Ms. Escobar, whom she later helped get scholarship money to study nursing at VMT Education Center in Northwest.

"Mary Center is a great place what was lacking was after-hours programs. Lots of the girls dined alone, their parents worked at night. Some of their parents had two jobs. So they didn´t have anybody home for social support," Ms. Nevers says.

"I started to help some of the girls study for their GED or the SATs during my off-hours, and I kept a list of programs that I thought were needed. After a year, I asked a couple of the girls to make a list of programs that they considered important," she says.

Well, the list developed into Ophelia´s House, Ms. Nevers says. It´s not just a place where girls go for test preparation, job training or simply to hang out. Ophelia´s House became a place for women to encourage and help other women whether their circumstances were similar or totally different.

With an intimate knowledge of the community and an ability to speak the language, Ms. Nevers enlisted the help of Mary Center colleague Leslie Sargent, 27, for her fund-raising abilities and Erin Barlow, 32, who holds a master´s degree in nonprofit management.

Together, the three women laid the foundation for Ophelia´s House. But the girls built the house brick by brick, so to speak with mentoring programs, dinner meetings, SAT workshops and the Young Mothers Network, just to name a few activities.

"We´re responsive to their ideas they have the power to make positive changes, and they can do it themselves. If you have an idea we will find somebody to help," Ms. Nevers says.

Before Ophelia´s House, Ms. Nevers was headed for medical school. Instead, she decided to chart another course. She now has the opportunity to work with one of her favorite groups teen-age girls and young women, ages 12 to 21, she says.

Ophelia´s House is unique because it doesn´t rely exclusively on experts to pontificate policy. Rather, the 18 girls determine their needs and how best to address them. They set the agenda and design the programs and activities, Ms. Nevers says.

"The girls talk about their day care frustrations and finding suitable day care for their children. Often there´s no support in the schools… . Violence in our community is another topic that we talk about frequently," says Cristi Benitez, co-president of the organization´s board of directors.

Mrs. Benitez and colleague Jessica Gonzalez recently started the Young Mothers Network at Ophelia´s House for teen moms in the District. The two women wrote the proposal and made the presentation. Ophelia´s House received grant money from Youth Venture, a Rosslyn-based national organization that aids youth.

"The majority of Ophelia House members have children. And it´s hard to go out with a baby. Often there´s no one to baby-sit. This program gives mothers an opportunity to de-stress," Mrs. Benitez says.

"The program would get the mothers together so they could talk about shared commonalities and have some fun as well," Mrs. Benitez says.

The idea, Ms. Nevers says, is to have a peer-run program that links the city´s teen mothers together. It includes a health-education component, and it teaches young mothers how to be advocates for themselves and their children, plus lots more.

Another objective at Ophelia´s House is to break down class barriers. Students from George Washington University and professionals who work at Pricewaterhousecoopers, an accounting firm, join the women and girls for dinners to talk about life and the challenges of being female. Women share a certain camaraderie, Ms. Nevers says, smiling.

So far, eight of the young women have paired themselves with mentors. A smile and an encouraging word can make all the difference especially when crises arise, Ms. Nevers says.

Since the organization´s incorporation last March, Ms. Nevers says she has seen a lot of positive changes.

"They´ve become empowered. They have their own opinions they´re blossoming and taking charge," she says.

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