Patti Welder teens strive to make positive change in self, school
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Seated at a round wooden table in the Patti Welder Library, three teenage girls look at each other with knowing smiles of pride.
In a true sign of maturity, Pasencia DeLeon, a 14-year-old eighth-grader speaks up first, explaining her personal growth over the past four months.
"There's a time to play and a time to be serious," Pasencia said. "I'm not as immature. I don't laugh anymore when I hear someone say 'fart.'"
The other 14-year-olds at the table - Nadia Pena, an eighth-grader, and Alexis Garcia, a seventh-grader - laugh at the time that has grown since the last time they got in trouble.
"My last referral? I got one right before the first meeting," Alexis said. "But that was before Ms. Joyce."
In February, a group of 10 seventh- and eighth-graders began meeting weekly under the name Real Talk. Although some girls dropped out of the group, Nadia, Pasencia and Alexis stuck with it.
"We made the change on our own, but the support came from the group," Nadia said.
The girls dealt with troubled pasts, rocky relationships, drug and alcohol use, and reputations they never dreamed of having. Through the group, all that is changing.
"A lot of us got in trouble every day, referrals, talking back to teachers, fighting," Pasencia, who was known as the go-to person for picking a fight, said. "Drugs, you could say. With Ms. Joyce, things have changed a lot."
Along with women from Parkway Baptist Church, Joyce Dean, a Victoria County employee, said she wants to inspire these junior high students to reach their full potential.
The name Real Talk is an acronym for the group's focus - redemption, empowerment, accountability and leadership.
In order to take part in the program, each teen must make a commitment to the others in the class and to herself to participate in the program each week, write in a journal and take part in a community service project.
They talk about graphic subjects, relationships, responsibility, consequences and faith.
To keep it "real," Dean and the volunteers took the girls on eye-opening field trips to the county jail, Mid-Coast Family Services, Perpetual Help Home, family planning, beauty school and Victoria College.
"The group isn't about bad kids who are changing, it's about kids who are on the right path and want to improve," Pasencia said. "If I can do it, anyone can do it."
Pasencia, who planned to drop out of school after eighth grade, now has her sights on college.
"Getting a college scholarship is cool, getting a diploma is cool," she said. "I'm realizing that I'm better than what I used to be."
For the first time in her life, she said people use the word "proud" around her.
"Proud - I've been hearing that a lot lately," Pasencia said. "Before, there was nothing to be proud of."
These days, she has her mind made up to attend Texas A&M, and wears maroon almost every day.
Seeing the impact Real Talk has made on the students, Dean struggles with the end of the school year and how to handle the next. A large part of the group will head to high school, but there are girls at Patti Welder who need the mentors too.
"We don't want to leave Patti Welder, but we don't want to leave them either," Dean said.
Dean hopes a group of women will step forward to mentor high school girls.
"I get very emotional," Dean said.
She offers a special kind of approval that the girls strive to maintain.
Pasencia and the others look forward to the fresh start that comes with high school. They defined it with a simple phrase: You only live once.
"In a new school, you don't want that bad reputation," Nadia said.
For them, the generation-defining motto means more than just enjoy an instant, living in the moment or taking thoughtless risks because "you only live once."
"It means make something of yourself, because you only live once," Nadia said. "Make memories, not lose them."
Nadia said the girls are realizing that they are better people than they used to be.
"Things that you thought were cool, they're not," she said. "What I think is the coolest is how we've changed so much, how we can make ourselves into something."
Nadia said things are improving.
Their advice for incoming sixth-graders: choose your friends wisely.
"Don't hang out with the crowd that skips class," Pasencia said, speaking from experience.
They want to change the perception of their school by setting a good example.
"It really is a good school, there's a lot of potential," Pasencia said. "Once you have that one person who changes, someone out of that whole group is going to go along with that person. Once that person goes, then their friends will. It's like a chain reaction."