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Organization that helps at-risk girls to break ground on new facility in Wilkinsburg

Kidsburgh: Gwen's Girls to break ground on new facility
Kidsburgh: Gwen's Girls to break ground on new facility 03:56

WILKINSBURG, Pa. (KDKA) -- A study by the Black Girls Equity Alliance in 2020 found that Black girls are 10 times more likely than white girls to be referred to juvenile justice, and the majority of arrests are for minor offenses that are not safety related.

Pittsburgh Public Schools was the largest referral source in Allegheny County for Black girls.  And the district referred students to law enforcement at rates higher than 95% of similar U.S. cities.

A year ago, Gwen's Girls created Caring Connections for YOUth to intervene before law enforcement is called, and the organization is expanding in even more ways.

At their after-school program on the North Side, elementary-aged girls are led by a CMU student who has placed a box in front of them at the table where they sit and asks them, "Can you look inside?"

They all immediately lean over and peer inside. "That's a tiny little computer," the instructor says.

In another room, teenage girls work with an instructor on chemistry, mixing different liquids in a clear water bottle.

"If it sinks, density is higher," one of the girls tells the instructor as they analyze why some liquids sink and others rise.

Gwen's Girls offers programming for girls from third through 12th grade in Allegheny County to empower them, offering help with schoolwork, life skills and a place where they can be themselves.

Fifteen-year-old Olivia Davidson, who's from Churchill and comes to the afterschool program, said, "I continue returning to Gwen's Girls because they give us the floor to speak about issues, not just in our personal lives but that we may see in our communities."

Saniya Smalls, also 15 years old and from the Hill District in Pittsburgh, says, "I like that we have a lot of fun, and we could express ourselves without having to sugarcoat our feelings."

Gwen's Girls CEO, Dr. Kathi Elliott, who's the daughter of founder Gwen Elliott, says Gwen's Girls is undergoing a renaissance.  They're breaking ground this spring on a new facility in Wilkinsburg, designed with input from the girls and community. 

Their new program, Caring Connections for YOUth, has already helped 130 families in its first year.  It's designed to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by providing services and support for kids and families before a situation escalates to the justice system. 

"Oftentimes, when (juveniles) are referred to the court, it takes weeks, months sometimes, for them to even get the attention that they need, and here is an opportunity for us to get them that early intervention," Elliott said. 

Sara Nevels runs Caring Connections for YOUth, helping young people and families with resources for therapy, anger management, life skills, mentoring, as well as critical needs like food and transportation.

Schools, law enforcement or anyone can call the United Way's 211 helpline and be connected with Caring Connections for situations like fights, truancy and minor offenses.

"We're molding young adults, and you don't necessarily mold young adults by just punishing and criminalizing.  You mold them by teaching, by replacing that behavior with something more appropriate, something more constructive and giving them outlets."

The girls say it's working.

"I know a lot of women who are implemented into the juvenile justice system or become victim to the school-to-prison pipeline don't have the support that they need to work toward their dreams and aspirations, so that's kind of what Gwen's Girls does," Davidson says.

Through all of its programming, Gwen's Girls is helping girls reach their potential.

"Gwen's Girls is more of a sisterhood that way," Davidson says.  "We have more bonded experiences and more stuff in common." 

Elliott adds, "That is what truly I think my mother would be so proud about -- the vision of Gwen's Girls not just being for girls, but girls, their family and the community."

If you know a young person, girl or boy, who needs help, you can reach Caring Connections for YOUth by calling 211 and choosing option 2, or by going to For more information on the programming Gwen's Girls offers, go to

For more on all kinds of programs for young people, go to

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