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Can the arts save lives? One home for girls aims to find out.

A Hard-Knock Life


[image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Sara, a Brookfield resident. It is an unnoticed neighbor to the bustling bulge of development around Virginia Center Commons. There is no sign. There are no lights at the entrance. Two brick columns, neither grand nor plain, share the weight of an iron gate.

The gate, which is usually open, introduces an uphill driveway at 10187 Brook Road. The way is straight but marred by a spot of sunken pavement. At its end a one-story brick building is perched on a 10-acre piece of land, hidden from the view of heavy traffic and busy mall-goers by rows of pines.

This is where Cameron, JoElle, Kacy and Sara live. Not necessarily by choice.

The four girls, all 16, couldn't be more different from one another. Their personalities are as similar as Snow White's dwarfs. They fight different weaknesses. They dream different dreams. They have taken different paths to get here; they'll leave with different destinations.

But they share at least one thing: They have seen the world, and it hasn't been beautiful. It has shown them some of the worst it has to offer: Drugs. Violence. Life on the streets. Rape. Abandonment. Love gone awry. In turn, the girls have made wrong choices, too. And now they are toughened because of it all, or at least they think so. They are strong and older than they should be.

And when they leave this place they will have something else in common. They will have been immersed in culture, whether they like it or not: Monet. "West Side Story." Edgar Allan Poe. "Carmina Burana."

Some people think that's the world these girls should see. Welcome to Brookfield, where the arts are supposed to change your life.

Brookfield is not new, though its focus on the arts is. The home was born on June 22, 1873, as The Magdalen Asylum.

Reforming wayward girls has never been an easy task, as the board of directors wrote in the Richmond Dispatch in 1875. One girl walked in, the board wrote, "weary and worn, a stranger in the city … under suspicion that 'some stain was upon her.'" One orphan girl had been "shut up in her shame and degradation for many months, fearing to appear upon the streets of her native city in the day-time." And a "poor, miserable, bloated girl" entered the home "ragged and filthy" but left with "dress and appearance … good enough to entitle her to respect in any man's parlor in this city."

Brookfield has gone through several changes in the 128 years since then.

Brookfield's latest incarnation is the brainchild of Tom Williamson, or Kitchi Nodin, as the Chippewa used to call him years ago when he was a social worker among American-Indian tribes in Wisconsin and Michigan. It means "Great Wind."

Williamson, 68, chuckles about that now. That was long ago, right after graduate school at the University of Chicago. He eventually made his way to Richmond, taught at Virginia Commonwealth University and took a job running Brookfield in 1978. Now there is gray in his beard and eyebrows, and the girls refer to him as "Granddad."

Brookfield is a community-based group home for girls. It's run by a private foundation that also receives public money — $135 a day per girl. Girls 13 to 17 can be placed here by social-services workers in Richmond and surrounding counties and cities. There is room for up to 16 girls, who come from unhealthy homes, or no homes at all. They are here to work out their problems.

Such group homes, Williamson says, typically offer a nurturing environment, vocational and educational support and grounding in basic life skills. But he believes that the standard fare is just not enough for troubled youth. "If they don't feel like they're a part of a larger picture they will not have a great deal of success," he says.

Williamson's solution: "We bombard them with cultural activities."

For years, Williamson has held the theory that immersing teens in the arts will introduce them to new ideas, new social settings, new ways of problem-solving and a world that is bigger than they are — a world full of "beauty and truth," he says.

"I think there's been a bit of snobbery, or class attitude … [that says] these are dysfunctional kids from poor families," Williamson continues. "All we need to do is make sure they get jobs, don't get pregnant and get a high school diploma."

As Williamson writes in his formal description of the program, stable cultures have standards and expectations of behavior that must be maintained and are accessible to all. When people feel like they're part of the culture, Williamson says, they sense responsibility to all.

So providing at-risk youth with culturally enriching experiences helps them connect to that world around them, Williamson says. As added benefits, the arts are healing, they contribute to spiritual and moral development, and they "release the creative spirit" and enhance "one's sense of well-being."

Last year, Williamson and some colleagues convinced Brookfield's board to buy into his idea. The home phased out its residents, closed its doors, hired a consultant, changed its program and reopened, reincarnated.

"To me, it's novel, it's innovative, it's rare," says Anita King, a foster-care social worker for the Richmond Department of Social Services, of Williamson's idea. King placed Cameron in the Brookfield program with hopes that she would be open to it.

[image-2](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly) Will it work? Nobody knows, because no one has had a chance to examine a program like this before.

Besides, even if the arts can save one girl they may not help another. As King observes, "Every girl is different."

JoElle is one of the first girls who moved into Brookfield. She has beautiful, smooth, ebony skin and wide catlike eyes. She is sweet and self-conscious. Her room is neat and tidy, she dresses well, and with her wide smile, she has mastered the art of a good first impression.

JoElle's parents divorced when she was a toddler. And as she entered her preteen years she found herself under a huge load. Her mother, sick with kidney disease, needed help around the house. JoElle worked to help pay bills, care for her mother and take care of her cousin's baby, who had been left with their family. She also tried to deal with the pain of having an older stepbrother rape her on his visits home.

"I was scared of a lot of stuff," JoElle says.

So one night in ninth grade, she went upstairs to her room and took 75 pills that the doctor had given her to help her sleep. She meant to die. Instead, she defied death. She woke up the next morning. She went to school. Then she passed out in history class.

From there, Social Services took over. She ended up in a health-care center in Richmond's West End, stayed there a year and was eventually taken in by her aunt. Her aunt taught her manners, she says — how to dress, how to present herself as a lady. But things didn't work out with her aunt, and she ended up in foster care.

Then last spring, JoElle's foster-care social worker, Joan Jeffreys, heard about Brookfield's new program. JoElle went in for an interview. As JoElle puts it, "It's not like you pick Brookfield. Brookfield picks you."

Nine months later, she is here. "I think she's much happier," Jeffreys says of JoElle. "She's just thrilled with how she's fitted in with Henrico High School. She's now running for treasurer of her senior class this coming year."

And she's a cheerleader — something that Brookfield underwrites.

One of the program's cornerstones is to give each girl the chance to develop a specific interest, beyond the cultural activities that they must attend. Brookfield gives them $250 a year to help them carry that development out. JoElle's interest is cheerleading. When she made the squad, she used the money in part to pay for her uniform and accessories.

Her fellow residents say cheerleading fits her perfectly. Asked to come up with a theme song for JoElle, Cameron says it would be any one of those songs from a Disney movie where the star sings about herself, surrounded by happy music and animals and pretty flowers. "That's JoElle," Cameron says, laughing.

JoElle also has big plans. Someday she wants to own a business — maybe a low-cost dance school for girls in social-services programs, she says. "Maybe one day you'll see my school and say, 'I knew that girl.'"

But while JoElle may have high moments, she has lows, too. She is dramatic. She focuses on herself. And the smallest thing can be a crisis. Coming from a home where she was in charge, she has a difficult time following orders, too.

"I'm a very independent person," she says. "I'm a very strong-minded, strong-willed person, and I don't like when people tell me what to do."

There are lots of rules at Brookfield.

Girls may come and go freely, but there are strict routines and restrictions. Residents must progress through four stages — with their progress measured and checked — to earn more privileges and more responsibilities.

Dealing with the girls takes balance, says Melody Billups, 24, who is one of the youth counselors at Brookfield. When she first started, she says, it was a struggle to hold firm when you knew what the girls had gone through.

But Billups soon learned. "You can be compassionate, and still hold someone accountable for their actions," she says.

There are lots of other people around the girls who work on that, too. Each girl has a lot of people to deal with. There is Williamson, the director. There is a clinical social worker, a program director and a lead counselor who is the disciplinarian. There are cottage counselors and youth evening counselors. Each girl is also assigned a specific counselor as an advocate.

At Brookfield, the arts hit residents at every turn.

It is a Thursday night, and the four girls are assembled in the Brookfield dining room, down the hall past administrative offices, a small room that serves as a chapel and the main living room with a fireplace and crate furniture.

It is rainy and dark outside. The windows are like mirrors. The girls sit on the floor, around a picture frame and a red candle laid out on a piece of silk.

During the last eight weeks, they've been learning about African culture and dance from the Elegba Folklore Society. It's one of their in-depth cultural activities each quarter. Last quarter, they took Tai Chi classes. Next they'll learn sculpture.

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