June, 22 2017

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At-risk youth take step to improve life skills

In learning about dining etiquette, self-esteem, ballroom dancing, respect for authority and other life skills, a group of North Side teenagers say they broke down their walls of insecurity and fears at a cotillion.
"We got to know God better and, ultimately, got to know ourselves better," says Daeja Baker, 16. "Even though we have our flaws, our strengths overshadow those flaws."

The 11 teens gained the skills through the "Stepping Out" cotillion program, sponsored by New Hope Church in the Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood on the North Side. The 10-week program, which concluded on Saturday with the official event at the Embassy Suites Hotel at Pittsburgh International Airport, aims to help at-risk teens learn skills that will serve them well throughout life, says Assistant Pastor Collin Roberts. The program gives teens behavioral guidelines for social and business situations, he says, and provides some college scholarships.

"It also gives them encouragement," says Roberts, who is pastor of outreach and discipleship. "It gives them confidence that they can take on different challenges. It gives them discipline."

Roberts and his wife, Madeline, started the annual program four years ago. A church committee selects participants from an application process. The teens' families pay a $50 registration fee, but corporate sponsors pick up the remaining $450 per child.
"I believe that the program just changes the lives of the participants," Roberts says. "It brings them out of their comfort zone."

Mary Downey, 13, agrees.

"I learned respect, and I stopped being shy," she says. "They break down all our insecurities."

Patricia Patterson, Daeja's mother, was among the proud parents in Saturday's audience who watched their children don fine dresses and tuxedoes, dance the waltz to the Eagles' "Take it to the Limit," make speeches and demonstrate fine dining skills.

"I think it was a great opportunity," says Patterson, 36. "I think it helped them build self-confidence and self-esteem, and a lot of children don't have that."

Donta Williams, 18, says he had the same kind of experience.

"I think I learned how to respect people, and I learned a lot about business," he says. "I'm more confident now than I was before I came in."

Daeja adds: "It shows us how we can go a lot further than sitting at home."

Roberts says the cotillion covers a broad range of life skills, even including job skills and entrepreneurship, and that participants tap into their creativity and dreams. Inner-city youth often especially need this kind of encouragement, he says.

"It gives them a chance to just be a force to reckon with," Roberts says. "They break out of that stereotypical mold. ... Inner-city youth have this urban look and urban behavior that constitutes violence.

"Here, we have different kids that are affected by their peers that may be in these types of activities," Roberts says. "They can step up and become leaders, and not have to follow that peer pressure."

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