Brightly painted flowerpots line the steps of Sophia Rayson's two-story home, one of many inviting messages telling neighborhood children "Come in."
And they do. Rayson's home is Activity Central for about a dozen lucky girls called the Can-Do Girls, a quickly growing club created in May by Rayson's sister, Shanae Hill.
The girls, ages 3 to 11, arrive four afternoons a week for art projects, self-esteem exercises and, on this day, a delightfully icky snack of "worms and dirt" (gummy worms, pudding and crushed-up cookies), followed by a hearty dinner of meatloaf and potatoes.
Rayson's home in north Minneapolis is just blocks from where 3-year-old Terrell Mayes was killed last year by a bullet fired through the wall of his house. She knows that upbeat stories such as the Can-Do Girls are a more difficult media sell than violence.
That only makes her more determined to tell it.
"There's a stigma attached to living north," said Rayson, 30, the mother of four children and a Minneapolis bus driver. "The news comes on, and that's all you hear."
While she offers her home as a gathering place, she says the big shout-out goes to Hill, 25, who created the multi-faceted program over many months and funds it largely with her own money earned as a child-care provider.
Twenty-one-year-old brother Quincy helps keep the program going with money from his Taco Bell paycheck.
"The girls are benefitting from it," Rayson said. "They'll come to my door and ask, 'Is it time for girls' group?' And I'll say, 'No, it's only noon.'"
Hill got the idea for an empowerment program over many years of observing girls in her care as a baby sitter and day-care provider. She didn't like a lot of what she saw.
Too much gossiping and bullying. Too little self-confidence.
"A lot of the ways the young girls dress and act," Hill said, "I was just thinking they need help more."
Last May, she and Rayson put up fliers around the neighborhood announcing the club's launch. From seven girls, she's now at her limit of 12.
Each afternoon begins with a confidence pledge. "I will love myself just the way I am ..."
"What if someone says something mean?" Hill asks the girls, some seated two-to-a-chair around a card table.
"Just walk away," 5-year-old Jalaya said.
"That's good," Hill said.
She's not afraid of tough love, when warranted.
"You want to go home?" Hill asks a girl who doesn't want to take a marker.
The girl shakes her head, grabs a marker.
When a few girls start arguing, she tells them, "Any fighting and you'll go home after group. You won't go to the park."
"It's challenging at times," Hill said, moving into the kitchen to check her boiling potatoes. "Small girls have huge attitudes. I'm always a referee."
A happy referee, though. "I love kids," said Hill, who has about 20 nieces and nephews. "I don't have kids of my own, so I'm supporting everyone else's."
Hill shops the Internet for craft ideas and buys in bulk at art supply stores. The girls recently painted wooden hearts. Today, they're putting googly eyes and glitter on little bags.
And they're completing a career project, with each girl creating a board featuring her dream job and reasons for choosing it. Those choices are as different as the girls are: veterinarian, make-up artist, FBI agent, teacher.
Jalaya wants to be a chef, so she can "make a lot of food from different places."
Volincia, 7, wants to be a dentist like her uncle and aunt, because "they give you presents and they check for cavities."
They'll present their boards to their families on Saturday.
They take field trips, too, to see the Lynx play or to visit the zoo.
A big part of the program is teaching the girls to give back, even when they don't have much themselves. The club recently raised $174, which they'll use to buy diapers and baby clothes to donate to a shelter.
During a Make You Smile campaign, the girls handed out 100 balloons with positive messages written on them to people who looked like they could use a lift.
One young man at a bus stop pulled off his headphones in surprise when a girl approached him with a balloon. Later on, they returned by the same route. He was still holding it.
Hill said a few girls come over just to eat dinner. She makes sure she has enough to feed them.
Hill hopes to expand the program. Mostly, she wants these little girls to believe in themselves. One girl's parents sent her a card of appreciation. Another told her "he loves me for what I do for the kids."
"She gets fulfillment that she's making a difference," Rayson said of her sister. "She teaches them that it's OK to be smart, to want something out of their lives.
"I always tell her, 'They'll always remember NaeNae, who lived on their block.'"