I spent last Tuesday night in the Southwest Florida Juvenile Detention Center.
Obviously, I was there as a guest. I tagged along with the Junior League of Fort Myers, a volunteer group of these absolutely lovely women who dedicate their time to empowering other women and children. On this Tuesday they were working with the girls at the Fort Myers JDC and I decided it was a story I wanted to cover.
We arrived around — you know what? I could go into all the boring details of how we got there, how we get wanded down, etc. But, really, all I want to tell you about are the girls in the JDC.
There are only five girls in the JDC population right now. I talked to three of them: Anna*, Amy* and Lily*.
Anna, 17, wants to be a cosmetologist when she gets out of the JDC. You can tell she’s been practicing her coloring techniques because part of her curly, dark hair has been bleached platinum blonde. Sadly, she’s on her 26th round here. But don’t stigmatize her. She’s not a bad kid. Anna is adorable, well-behaved and polite. She tells me her favorite thing she’s learned from the Junior League’s visits is etiquette (a word she can’t pronounce quite right) and she nods at her elbows places just off the top of the table. She tells me her first time in here was because of a small bud of weed she accidentally brought to school in the eighth grade. She’s been in and out ever since. She eats Chick-fil-a chicken nuggets the Junior League has brought and encourages Amy to try her avocado sauce.
Amy is 14. She has long dark hair and freckles. She’s in here for fighting, but you would never know it looking at her and Anna talking. The girls share their food, have inside jokes and once in a while say the same thing in unison, which sends them into a fit of laughter. Amy says Anna is like her mom. Anna corrects her and says she’s more like her Oprah. They tell me they knew each other from school prior to being in the JDC. In their matching heather gray sweaters and khaki pants, It’s almost like they’re at camp. Amy tells me she likes being in the JDC. She says she feels safe here. “You never know what’s going to happen on the outs,” she tells me.
Lily is the last girl I spoke with. She is 14 years old. He blonde hair is buzzed short and two parallel lines shaved into her head end right before her left ear. She’s small (she seems to drown in an oversize orange sweater) but her eyes are big and green with long eyelashes shooting out in every direction. She says she’s been in the JDC for a day. Her mom called the police when she got in a fight with her younger brother, who she says is bigger than her. She has a 21-day sentence at the JDC. She talks about her love of sports and how sometimes she “gets to go out and shoot some hoops.” She says she’s pretty fast. I ask her what basketball team she likes. She says, “the Miami Heat.” I tell her, “me, too.” She smiles and we high-five. Then I ask her what football team she likes. She tells me she likes “the Jets, even though they suck.” I tell her we like all the same sports teams and she high-fives me again, grinning in the warmth of sharing something unique with one other person. She looks me dead in the eye, as if needing to convince me, and says, “I’m not book smart, but I’m very street smart.” I tell her I believe her. Lily tells me she wants to join the military when she’s old enough. She said she doesn’t care what branch, but she said her father was in the military and died in combat “shooting the bad guys.” She wants to do the same. I tell her to keep rooting for the Heat before I leave (we both know it’s pointless to root for the Jets). She smiles and bumps her fist with mine.
So after all of this, I wrote a story, which I could tell was missing something. My editor and I decided I need to go back one more time. So next month, I’ll be back at the JDC to see if any of those girls are still there. For some of them I hope they are, for others I hope they’ve found their way out of trouble. The Junior Leaguers told me this program has a stigma because it’s in a jail. But if anyone met these girls, they’d know how much potential they have, how much heart they’ve got. They just need help and guidance and for society to not give up on them.
This experience made me really want to join a big sister-little sister program, because everyone deserves to feel like someone cares. And after this, I know I really care about what happens to these girls.
*To protect their identity, the girls’ real names are not being use.