SANTA CRUZ, Trinidad and Tobago – St. Jude's Home for Girls has served as a refuge for girls in Trinidad and Tobago’s state care system for more than a century. Many of the girls here are adolescents who have been appointed by the family court for reasons ranging from sexual abuse at home to behaviour that is deemed “beyond control”.

Some are on remand with pending court matters, while others have dropped out of school and need counselling for trauma, depression and other conditions. Most do not have full certificates of education, placing them at a disadvantage when they must leave St Jude’s at the age of 18 — often without another place to go.

 "I feel good that I can share my experiences with the girls and maybe prevent them from going down the wrong path." - Kylise Romain, 21, NiNa mentor

Kylise Romain, 21, understands this predicament well. She arrived at St. Jude’s as a 13-year-old after constantly getting into fights at school. “I was teased and attacked a lot in primary school about my hair and my skin colour,” she says. “My parents did not understand what I was going through." Ms. Romain says she responded to the bullying by becoming a bully herself.

When she left St Jude’s at 14, she ended up in a violent relationship.  "I have seen first-hand what happens when girls leave St. Jude's without anywhere to go or anything to do. You become an easy target to be disrespected and violated just to keep a roof over your head," she explains.

Ms. Romain was able to leave the abusive relationship due to the support of her father and an underlying belief that she deserved better. "As I got older and I was able to examine myself and my behaviour. I realized that I had low self-esteem because of the bullying, and I know now that low self-esteem comes out in false personalities."

Photo Credit: Akosua Edwards
Girls from St Jude's strike a pose with their facilitator after a workshop. Photo: Akosua Edwards

Now a third-year psychology student, she is determined to make sure other girls at St Jude’s don’t fall into the same situation she did. She’s become a mentor with the The NiNa Young Women's Leadership Programme, which helps girls from St. Jude's develop the life and entrepreneurial skills they’ll need when they leave the home. The programme is supported by Spotlight Initiative and run through The Cleopatra Borel Foundation, an organization that promotes empowerment through sport and education.

Founder of the NiNa Young Women's Leadership Programme, Akosua Edwards, says the programme focuses on how to manage emotional trauma as well as developing the entrepreneurial skills girls need to become independent. This includes confidence-building activities, public speaking, workshops on how to present a business pitch, and other skills such as making toothpaste and dyes.

"Through listening to the experiences of the speakers and facilitators, they can see that they are not much different to anyone else,” says Ms. Edwards. “Everyone has challenges to surmount and victories to celebrate."

"Through listening to the experiences of the speakers and facilitators, they can see that they are not much different to anyone else.” - Akosua Edwards, Founder of the NiNa Young Women's Leadership Programme

In December 2020, under the Spotlight Initiative, the programme started a four-part workshop called ‘Choices: Consequence is No Coincidence’ at an off-site venue in Santa Cruz. It introduces girls to the power and implications of choice, arming them with the tools and knowledge they need to make good decisions. Topics include relationships, sex, career and the power of thought.

The course is overseen by a licensed child psychologist and also includes yoga, art therapy, and guided discussions in an open, informal safe space. Previous graduates of NiNa who are now in university courses also serve as rotating mentors during the sessions. Ms. Edwards says she’s seen a great improvement in the girls’ ability to articulate their wants and navigate conflict.

Ms. Romain is delighted to be part of the programme, viewing herself as more of a big sister than a mentor. She says she wishes NiNa had existed when she was at St. Jude's. "Not only is NiNa doing great work but the staff at St. Jude's are making real changes. The programme is real and relatable and the girls are more emotionally intelligent and aware of themselves than I was at that age," she says.

“I feel good that I can share my experiences with the girls and maybe prevent them from going down the wrong path. I appreciate it when they open up to me and tell me their stories. I am in awe of them and how they can articulate their story. That takes a lot from a teen and I attribute this ability to the NiNa programme."

By Tracy Chimming Lewis