On a damp, cool Saturday afternoon, five Latina teens shouted encouragement to their team members suspended 55 feet above their heads on a ropes course at Davidson College’s Erwin Lodge in Davidson, N.C.
Some of the team members had been brave enough to climb to the top. Following a short rest, it was time to think about coming down, a scary idea for some.
“Come on. You can do it,” shouted one team member below. “Don’t quit now, you’re almost there,” shouted another. With those words, the members suspended above began a slow journey back to the ground. When they finally arrived, they were all smiling, proud of what they had done. It was a feat some of them thought they would never accomplish.
The ropes course experience symbolizes what the Circle de Luz – Circle of Light – is about for Latina teens.
See audioslide show of what Circle de Luz means to one member.
Like the ropes course, “We want to provide them with resources and people who believe in them,” said Rosie Molinary, who founded the Charlotte, N.C.-based nonprofit Circle de Luz in 2008. Molinary is a board member of the organization and an expert on Latinas and body image. She has written two books on the subject.
Molinary, an adjunct professor at UNC Charlotte who remembers what it was like to be a Latina teen, founded Circle de Luz in 2008 because she wanted to do something to address social and economic problems facing Latina teens.
According to a 2008 report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancies, 53 percent of Latinas will get pregnant at least once before age 20. Forty-one percent of Latinas will not graduate from high school in four years, according to a 2009 report by the National Women’s Law Center.
Working with the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system, Circle provides an anchor for Latina teens, some of whom come from poor backgrounds and whose parents’ citizenship status may be in question. Molinary said her group and CMS don’t question the parents of Latina teens in the program about their parents’ immigration status.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a political organization. We are a youth-development organization. What we focus on is providing resources where resources have been traditionally been scarce.
“Immigrant families have always lacked resources. They are hard-working. They don’t have resources compared to others. The families are so inspiring to us.”
Circle de Luz works with Latina teens from seventh grade through high school graduation, providing mentoring, educational and health and wellness programs, as well as a minimum $5,000 college scholarship when they graduate from high school.
It gets funds from grants and fundraising, as well as a “giving circle,” which is comprised of 155 donors and volunteers who donate money to the scholarship fund for graduating seniors. Volunteers who work directly with the teens are called mijas, an endearing word in Spanish that means girlfriends. They’re in direct contact with the teens, serving as mentors and providing emotional, educational and financial support.
“What we want to do is empower these girls to realize the future is of their choice,” said Molinary.
Rebecca, 17, is one of 15 Latina teens in the program. She’s a student at Phillip O Berry Academy of Technology in Charlotte. Circle de Luz provided access to the group members on the condition their last names not be used – part of the group’s agreement with the parents and teens to protect their privacy as much as possible.
Rebecca, whose family came to the United States to escape war-torn El Salvador, was proud that she had successfully completed the ropes course.
With tears in her eyes, Rebecca talked about the emotional support she received from her network of mijas and fellow Latina teens following the death of her grandfather.
“They were there supporting me, telling me everything was going to be OK. They become my second family,” said Rebecca, who hopes to be accepted into Princeton University when she graduates from high school. She wants to become an electrical engineer.
Gabby is an 11th-grader at Mallard Creek High School. Proud of her Colombian heritage, Gabby has developed strong bonds with her mijas and other teens in the program. They have celebrated with her during good times and helped her during bad times. With Circle de Luz, “I’ve become more aware of where I am, where I need to be and steps to take to help me to get there.” When she graduates from high school, Gabby – a violin player and singer – wants to study music in college.
Circle de Luz will celebrate its first graduating class in 2014 and Gabby plans to be among them. Molinary said all of the teens want to go to college and she hopes the five years they’ve spent in Circle de Luz will provide them with the knowledge and confidence to achieve their goals.
“I think the most significant thing we do is broaden our teens’ sense of what’s possible, which makes them eager to focus on the life they want to create.”
We provide them a sense of self awareness and support,” so that they can make significant contributions to their families, their culture and the country as a whole.