- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) - Gunshots rang out outside the window at Bennett’s Trailer Park in Opelika. Phone in hand, 911 was dialed.

A man lay on the ground outside the window.

Tiffany Pitts said at that moment she knew she needed to leave for a time to move her life forward to be able to help others.

Pitts went on to Alabama State University and later got a position at Auburn High School as a guidance counselor.

While at Auburn High, she noticed a lot of the girls were fighting and having attitude problems with classmates and teachers.

She needed to do something about it, so she founded Girls Rock, now Girls’ STEPS.

Pitts said Girls’ STEPS is a mentoring program for high school girls to prepare them to be self-efficient, to have a positive self-image and to be prepared for life beyond school. The program has been going on for four years.

Girls’ STEPS activities include everything from college visits around the state to career expos and the annual Mother-Daughter Dinner held at the Auburn University Hotel and Dixon Conference Center.

“It’s a night of love for girls and their mothers,” Pitts said. “A lot of people cry at the event because there’s an affirmation (the mothers and daughters) have to recite to each other. They’re apologizing for everything they’ve done wrong; they’re saying ‘I love you.’ One girl said it was the first time that she could remember her momma telling her she loved her. She said, ‘Our relationship is so much better now.’”

Ebony Harper, former Girls’ STEPS member and Auburn High School alumna, said ever since she’s known Pitts, her attitude has changed for the better.

Before joining Girls’ STEPS, Harper was making mostly C’s in school. After joining, her grades turned to A’s. She’s continued that effort through college at Alabama State University, earning a spot on the Dean’s List.

“(Pitts) became a mother figure,” Harper said. “My mother passed from cancer and I stayed with my grandmother. She took me on college tours to Alabama State and AUM, and when I got accepted to college she bought me comforters for my dorm to take the stress off my grandmother.”

Harper is a sophomore studying criminal justice, is a part of her student government association and plans to graduate in 2018.

There’s a 100 percent high school graduation rate in the program, something Pitts said she’s extremely proud of. The program has 60 members from Auburn, Opelika, Valley and Notasulga high schools, and is gaining interest throughout the rest of the state.

Meetings are held monthly on Sundays, and Pitts said no one is turned away.

“In my mind, in order to have a better life, I feel that I need to also pull other people up so they can get out of the situation that they’re in,” Pitts said. “I had a very supportive mother, and a lot of girls and kids in general don’t.”

Catrina Cook, board member of Girls’ STEPS, said the program has had a tremendous impact on the community.

“Not only does it affect the girls themselves and help them understand and reach new heights, it also changes the community,” Cook said. “It shows there’s nothing wrong with making good grades and standing out and going the extra mile. Once the parents think their kids can do better, they start to expect that.”

According to Cook, the program was a great effort in terms of changing the minds of students.

“It showed the girls that someone at the school cares about them and is a positive influence in their lives,” Cook said. “It’s having that tough love and wanting the best out of them.”

Pitts said since the program only accepts high school-aged girls, she will be starting two programs, one for third- to fifth-grade girls, the Little Rockettes, and another for sixth- to eighth-grade girls, the Rockettes, in the summer.

Pitts also said she hopes to hold a teen summit on Auburn University’s campus for girls around the state. She dreams of hosting a teen awards show to honor those making a difference in the community and possibly having Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama travel and speak to the girls.

“We’re not doing little things, because I want them to see a different world.”

Pitts said she hopes she’s created a program that reflects what expensive programs in the community offer, opening doors for girls from more modest means.

“I want them to know what they can be, if they only put their mind to it.”


Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, https://www.oanow.com/



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