Gwen's Girls shine: Young women in nonprofit program will offer poetry, dance

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A nonprofit group that helps girls develop their special abilities will showcase those talents in a private recital this evening.

Young women and girls served by Gwen's Girls, a nonprofit agency in the south and east suburbs, will perform dances, mime and poetry reading during a celebration of Black History Month tonight in a performance for their family members and Gwen's Girls volunteers.

Tonight's recital in Wilkinsburg is not open to the public, but admission to Gwen's Girls certainly is. The goal of the group is "to empower girls and young women to lead productive lives through holistic gender-specific programs, education and experiences," said director Lynn Knezevich,

Gwen's Girls was founded by Gwen Elliott, one of the first female African-American officers to join the Pittsburgh police force in 1976, and the first black woman to achieve the rank of commander on the force.

While she was working, Commander Elliott noticed that many girls she encountered were getting into trouble. She saw that the programs available at that time for court-involved boys didn't work for girls.

After Commander Elliott's retirement, she founded Gwen's Girls to give disadvantaged girls and young women, especially African-Americans, the support needed to create bright futures.

Ms. Knezevich said the agency, which is funded by the Allegheny County's Department of Children, Youth and Families, the United Way, various foundations and individual donors, serves about 400 girls per year.

She said the typical girl served comes from a neighborhood with a high incidence of violent crime and the girl may have a parent with a substance abuse problem.

At Gwen's Girls, the girl "knows she is in a safe, nurturing environment, so she can concentrate on her school work," Ms. Knezevich said.

The agency provides a variety of services.

Across Allegheny County, Gwen's provides reunification services to help those who had been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect to transition back into their families, schools and neighborhoods.

Prevention services are also provided. The purpose of prevention services is to help girls avoid high-risk behaviors such as teen pregnancy, dropping out of school and activities that could involve them in the criminal justice system.

Gwen's Girls also teaches girls how to have healthy relationships with family members and peers, and provides a program called "Making Positive Life Choices" to girls in the public schools and at community centers.

The agency now also provides programs in the Mon Valley, working in the Braddock Municipal Building at 415 Sixth St., in the LaRosa Boys and Girls Club of McKeesport at 901 Ravine St. and the Duquesne-West Mifflin Boys and Girls Club at 29 North Third Street.

Gwen's Girls also provides girls with job readiness and training and with mentoring.

The agency runs a residential program on the North Side for girls ages 13 to 21, with a special emphasis on services for pregnant and parenting teen girls and their babies.

Gwen's Girls also provides foster care for 12 girls. The nonprofit provides training and monthly support group meetings for its foster parents.

Ms. Knezevich said the agency is recruiting additional foster parents.

For more on Gwen's programs in the Mon Valley, call the LaRosa Boys and Girls Club at 412-678-1945.

Those interested in Gwen's programs in Allegheny County, school districts interested in a presentation of "Making Positive Life Choices" and potential foster parents should call the organization at 412-731-7670. Visit

Anne Cloonan, freelance writer: .


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