On a recent Saturday night at a community center in Homewood, it didn’t matter to a group of young ladies that the fall night felt more like winter. They were on the red carpet in stunning, white ball gowns and teardrop necklaces that sparkled. They were about to make their entrance.
For 17 teen girls with dainty corsages on the wrists, the chance to be presented, show off their etiquette skills and hair styles and waltz in a room bursting with pride and the beaming smiles of family, caregivers, case workers and community members, was worth the wait.
Three months earlier these young ladies began their journey together in A Dance for Life, the long running rite of passage program sponsored by A Second Chance Inc. (ASCI), a leading provider of services and supports for kinship care families—relatives raising relatives—for nearly 25 years. After school, in ASCI’s Rhonda D. Wright Family Center, agency staff, community leaders and volunteers gather with teens for workshops and host discussions about some of the things that confront these girls every day—from finding the help that they need to thrive, navigating life and learning at school, staying safe and being responsible on social media, and what it means to be a strong woman of color. Lessons on leadership and etiquette remain among the program’s hallmarks, as are frank discussions on perseverance on the way to success, being respectful and asking for the same, and that it is OK to say no and mean it. For the program’s founder, these are topics too important to leave to chance.
The agency’s signature program marked 21 years on Nov. 10. ASCI President and CEO Sharon McDaniel, MPA, Ed.D., created A Dance for Life to help change the tide in young lives, especially those affiliated with the agency that she founded, and who are growing up like she did in kinship-foster care.
As a practice, McDaniel says, ASCI represents an intersection where neighbors, family and community members work in partnership to support youth in their care. Over the years, touching the lives of young ladies in A Dance for Life, as well as their young male escorts, has also meant harnessing the power and support of constant partners like the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, and Families, as well as local churches, philanthropies, child advocacy organizations, and providers.
“I named the program A Dance for Life as a metaphor for all the dances in life that our young ladies will encounter; whether it is feeling left out, experiencing a breakup with their very first boyfriend, not getting a good grade on a test after they studied hard, or having conflict at home with their grandmas,” says McDaniel. “These are the kind of experiences that create that dance. Our hope is that the cultural enrichment opportunities, workshops and nurturing we offer through A Dance for Life will help propel them to navigate their young lives with resolve, grace, confidence, and strength,” adds McDaniel, who was raised by caring adults who were like family.
For Davida Penn, A Dance for Life had a hand in nurturing her life. Even now, for this married mother of a 4-week old son, the time that she spent in the program as a teen can always feel close. Penn, now 26, held on to the evening gowns the program provided; four in all—one for each year she spent as a debutante. It doesn’t matter that they no longer fit, Penn says they are reminders of a special program that helped her and so many young Black girls in Pittsburgh to “feel good about themselves.” So far for Penn, such wisdom has lasted a lifetime.
“I was a good student, focused and into basketball, but I had a hard time opening up and talking to people,” says Penn, who still remembers the advice of program staff to stand tall and look people in the eye when speaking.
Every year, sitting down at an elegant dinner at a local hotel or restaurant is what participants like Penn are treated to in A Dance for Life. These settings are where the young ladies hone their table manners and etiquette skills before their big evening at the grand ball.
“These were such beneficial skills to learn. For some of us, these were things that we didn’t get to learn at home or at school,” says Penn, whose framed portraits from the grand ball decorate her home office, along with the collection of event programs that she treasures.
As a coach at a residential program and drop-in-center for youth in Pittsburgh, Penn says she is grateful for the opportunity to pay it forward. Even on the job, she shares some of the same wisdom and guidance that she received as a teen in A Dance for Life.
Jaslyn Cuff, 24, is another A Dance for Life alumni. A full-time job working with youth and a couple of part-time jobs keeps her on the go, but most years, Cuff makes time to return to A Dance for Life to pitch in where she is needed.
“The times have changed and the challenges the girls face now are a little different from what they were when I was in A Dance for Life, but I come back as often as I can to share my story and to tell them how much the program meant to me. What the girls are learning may not make sense to them now, but it will later,” says Cuff.
Korie Christian Moreland was 15 when she participated in A Dance for Life, but she spent her youth—from birth to age 21, in kinship-foster care. For Moreland, 26, the program provided a glimpse into a whole new world. “A lot of us gained cultural skills and learned to waltz. We didn’t hear any hip-hop,” adds Moreland, who is a social worker and advocate for youth in foster care. “And for some of us, A Dance for Life meant being pampered and getting our hair done in a salon for the first time.”
At this year’s Nov. 10 event, the young ladies were in the driver’s seat—they chose the gown that they wore to the grand ball, and planned the evening’s events, which included a first-ever talent show, said Doreen Thomas, a former ASCI staffer who has coordinated A Dance for Life for nearly two decades. Working with the girls and program, she says, is a passion.
“I love A Dance for Life. I love the young people. I’ve watched many of them grow up as they return year after year to be debutantes or to volunteer. And I love hearing how they are passing on what they have learned from being with us, whether it’s knowing what fork or knife to use when they sit down for dinner, respecting themselves and others, staying focused on their goals, or about feeling comfortable with who they are.”
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