"I don't sell false dreams," Charde Houston says, by way of introduction. It's not a problem, since reality looks quite good on her.
At 24, the 6-foot power forward for the Minnesota Lynx basketball team knows what it's like to be a winner. She set the California state high school scoring record -- 3,837 points -- played for the UConn Huskies and was selected as a 2009 WNBA All-Star.
None of it mattered last Monday night as Houston stood over five painfully shy tween and teen girls to begin the biggest sales pitch of her life: Getting them to believe in themselves.
"You don't think you're fly?" she asks one, exhibiting playful surprise. "I know I am."
"Let me see your nails, girl," Houston tells another, admiring her fingers. "I love it. I love it."
"Wait, you have to speak up now," she tells a third, forcing brief eye contact and a handshake.
"When I was your age," Houston tells them, "I wish I had a group like this to come to."
The girls are residents of Perspectives Inc., a multiservice agency based in St. Louis Park offering transitional housing, mental health services and parent education to rebuild families and keep them together. When Houston was the same age as these girls, she was living out of a car with her impoverished family in San Diego. Tonight, she's launching Project Y.O.U. (Youth. Opportunities. Unlimited.). It's a six-week leadership program she hopes to expand nationally.
Houston planned for 10 girls but this, she understands, is the nature of the beast. For girls transitioning out of homelessness or with parents in recovery, something as simple as showing up isn't always simple. Two sisters went with their mother to a doctor's appointment. Two others missed their bus. They'll catch up next week. Houston will make sure of it.
"When you see me, the clothes, the bags, that means nothing to me," Houston tells the girls as she passes out Project Y.O.U. T-shirts, brightly colored construction paper, markers, stickers and glitter, and invites them to help themselves to snacks.
"What matters is the time and effort you put into reaching your goal. To be successful, you have to start out with a vision."
Houston's early vision did not include basketball. She wanted to run track like her hero, Marion Jones. At her local gym, she was always the last picked for basketball teams, often in tears. "I couldn't shoot. I couldn't do anything," she said.
One day a man walked into the gym as the 11-year-old Houston practiced shots. "Wanna play basketball?" he asked her. Anthony Wines became her first basketball coach, working with her every day.
"He was always telling me, 'You're going to be good.' I didn't believe it until I saw the results," she said.
From age 13 to 17, Houston was at the mercy of others, as was her homeless family. Coaches and friends stepped in to make sure Houston got to basketball practice, to school, to bed. "If I have any control over my destiny, it will not be this life," she told herself. "I stayed in the gym every day, listening to my coaches, being encouraged."
She was the first member of her family to graduate from high school. She played college basketball at UConn, graduating in 2008 with a degree in sociology. She is pursuing her master's degree in psychology from online Capella University, planning to graduate in 2011.
Project Y.O.U. includes weekly art and writing activities and discussions about peer pressure, beauty, nutrition, safe sex and self-esteem. Houston offers Y.O.U. "bucks" to encourage participation, has plans for speakers and off-site trips and will ask each girl to pick one college and apply for a scholarship.
"Charde has a visceral understanding of what our girls have experienced," said Perspectives vice president Linda Domholt. "She's been able to overcome challenges and give back. It's very exciting for us."
Tonight the girls are creating "vision boards" around career goals and barriers. Nobody wants to start. Houston is patient, nonjudgmental. Soon, they pull out the glue and stickers. DaRondra Stevson, 14, wants to be a veterinarian. Jayla Blair, 12, wants to play pro basketball. Arcenia Sparks, 16, wants to be a "very successful" surgeon. Jayla's sister, Jasmine Blair, wants to be a nurse.
Donnaya Massey, 12, doesn't dare breathe her thoughts. Houston pushes gently. Donnaya whispers that she wants to be a famous singer.
"Will you sing me a song?" Houston asks, nonchalantly. After most of the girls have left the room, Donnaya begins to sing "The Star Spangled Banner." She botches the words, but it doesn't matter. Her voice is glorious.
"Would you want to learn the words?" Houston asks.
"Yeah," Donnaya says.
"Would you want to learn the words and sing them at one of my games?" Houston asks.
"Yeah," Donnaya says, bursting into a smile.
Houston doesn't sell false dreams. Donnaya needs to start practicing.
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org