It takes time to get the conversation rolling among the girls at St. Paul’s Humboldt High, and even then, the initial talk during a recent visit was about pimples and prom.
But Kati Vaudreuil, a school social worker, keeps prodding, and the nine gathered in room 2218 begin to open up about classroom difficulties — plus a taco salad fundraiser they’d organized that netted $430 for homeless kids.
These girls were tapped to be leaders before they knew they had the qualities in them. And they have risen to the challenge with the help of Kadra Mohamed, a Metro Transit officer who volunteers as a mentor. In many cases, the girls joined the “Women’s Leadership Group” after making mistakes or enduring personal struggles.
Some have gotten into fights. They’ve skipped school.
But in the course of once-a-week meetings carved out of the regular school day, they talk out those issues plus others they may have in common — family problems, for example — with the promise that the details stay in the room.
“I feel like the group is a diary,” Mariya Johnson, 16, a junior from the East Side, said after one of its meetings two weeks ago. “We say how we feel inside the group. When we get outside the group, it all disappears.”
Melissa Dobbs, 18, a junior from the North End, was blunt about the reason for her involvement.
“Fighting. Physically. In the office, always in trouble,” she said.
Even within the group, Dobbs said, she butted heads with Johnson, at first. In time, they worked through the drama.
Now, they sometimes are called to the principal’s office together, she said, to speak with younger girls who have been fighting — to be an example of teens able to settle their differences.
When on edge, Dobbs said, those times when “the old Melissa would have just went off,” she takes a minute to think, “Should I really do this?”
For that, “the 60-second decision,” she can thank retired St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith. Three years ago, Smith partnered with Vaudreuil to start the girls group.
He, too, is a former Humboldt troublemaker made good.
Smith has been a force at the West Side school for many years, having launched a mentoring program there about 14 years ago, Vaudreuil said.
Interim Superintendent John Thein, who had breakfast with the girls after their taco salad fundraiser, joked that anyone venturing within a block of Humboldt is liable to be pulled inside by Smith to be a mentor. Theresa Battle, an assistant superintendent who oversees high schools, meets weekly with Johnson, who struggled with her grades and attendance.
“She’ll be real with me,” Johnson said of Battle as a mentor. “She’ll tell me straight up, ‘You really need to come to school. It’s important.’ ”
This year, Smith spent much of his time getting a similar boys’ group up and running. But he was there with the girls on a Wednesday recently — dressed in red track jacket and black sweatpants — reminding them of 60-second decisions and of being conscious of the “craziness in the streets” and the violence that can occur at parties.
“I just want to tell you: I’m proud of you,” he said. “But be careful.”
Also there preaching awareness was Mohamed, who grew up on the West Side and is the state’s first Somali-American officer. She worked with the girls the entire school year.
Muna Mohamed, 17, a senior from the East Side, considered being a police officer, citing Kadra Mohamed’s influence, but now is leaning toward becoming a probation officer. Too many kids from their culture are in juvenile detention without someone they can trust or relate to, she said. “They don’t have that one person who can connect with them, and say, ‘This is this.’ ”
Shukri Ali, 18, a senior from the West Side, also credits Kadra Mohamed with helping her push through a rough year during which Ali was absent because of family problems.
“It’s nice to hear from a professional like Kadra that you’re going to make it eventually,” Ali said.
Last Friday, the girls and the boys — many of whom serve as mentors to Humboldt’s middle-schoolers — joined in a year-end celebration. Dobbs was unable to make it, however. She is part of the school’s certified nursing assistant program, and had to take a state test that day.
Someday, Dobbs hopes to be a nurse, she said, and then to go back to school to be a doctor. Being a leader, and learning to respect yourself, she said, can help you dream big.