- Associated Press - Saturday, February 27, 2021

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) - Akirah Johnson, 11, spends three days a week finding community and mentorship at a new program - Saving Our Sisters - that encourages positive decision-making for middle and high school girls in Cedar Rapids.

For the past few weeks, Akirah has been working on creating a vision board, which helps her think about her goals and how to achieve them.

Akirah, who is a fifth-grader at Garfield Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, already is eager to learn how to drive a car, said her mother, Tiara Johnson. She loves to dance, draw and color and read. And she asks a lot of questions, her mother said.

Johnson told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that when she came across Saving Our Sisters, which launched in January through Tanager Place, she thought the program would be a great way for her daughter to broaden her support system and have adults in addition to her to confide in.

Because of the pandemic, Akirah hasn’t had many social opportunities. So an added benefit has been the routine and having the chance to get out of the house, Johnson said.

Earlier this month, Akirah got to visit the African American Museum of Iowa with the program. She learned more about last year’s killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and police brutality - heavy topics at her age - but her mother said she came home excited to talk about it.

“It’s amazing for a kid her age to be interested in it,” Johnson said.

The kids also have visited NewBo City Market to talk to entrepreneurs, and Akirah came home telling her mother she should start a business selling her resin art.

Saving Our Sisters is a new program through Tanager Place, which offers children and families mental health prevention, treatment and outreach services. The program is in partnership with the African American Family Resource and Planning Committee.

It is funded through the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation’s Creating Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities (SET) Fund. Tanager Place was one of five nonprofits selected to receive funding. Nearly $160,000 was granted to the program for 2021.

“We’re trying to build girls up to be future leaders, keep them away from negative behavior,” said Denise Bridges, youth outreach coordinator at the African American Family Resource and Planning Committee. “One of the things I know we have to start with is their own self-esteem and identity.”

Bridges has been teaching anger management programs in Cedar Rapids schools for almost two decades.

For Saving Our Sisters, Bridges will help girls examine what they value and what obstacles they’re facing. They will learn how to interact with police to keep themselves safe, she said. They will talk about guns, gangs, substance abuse, domestic abuse and violence.

“They’ve got to believe if they’re in a bad situation, there is hope and they can get out of it,” Bridges said. “We’re there to help them.”

The most important part of the program is building trust and relationships, Bridges said.

After the program is over, mentors will continue to check in with the girls periodically.

Alicia Strong, 31, is a volunteer mentor with Saving Our Sisters.

Strong, who said she comes from a broken home, wants to help girls in the way she was helped as a child through Boys & Girls Clubs.

At Saving Our Sisters, the girls learn tools to solve problems and resolve conflicts without escalating the situation. They talk about their home lives, school, relationships, and whatever else is on their minds.

The girls are teaching Strong a thing or two as well. Namely, TikTok dances.

“Every time I look over someone is trying to teach someone else a new TikTok,” Strong said about dances popularized by the digital app.

“We want to let these kids know we’re going to make sure you have every opportunity you want. You have somebody to walk with you down that road you’re about to embark on as an adult,” said Tanager Place Director Lori Ampey.

The program is geared toward middle and high school girls. There are 10 kids in the program every eight to 10 weeks. The group meets 5-7 p.m. Mondays, 6-8 p.m. Wednesdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays.

Groups are in-person and masks are required. The girls’ temperatures are taken at the beginning of each session.

The program is free to participants, but there is an application process.

To inquire about the program, call Tanager Place at (319) 365-9164.

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