A dusty, unpaved road in the hills of Prescott Valley leads you to Mingus Mountain Academy, a court-appointed rehabilitation facility for troubled girls aged 12-18. Last Wednesday, I jostled along in the van with two ex-convicts and two enthusiastic Gina’s Team interns to the campus. In the back of the van, we towed trash bags filled with stuffed animals, cookies, and candy canes. For the girls of Mingus, Christmas came early, just like it does every year.
For the past five years, Gina’s Team volunteers have traveled to Prescott with donated stuffed animals and treats to inspire the girls of Mingus and spread a little holiday cheer, which is something they need in spades. Many of these girls have struggled with addiction, domestic issues, living on the street—you name it, they’ve probably experienced it. And they’re babies—grade, middle, and high school kids who are struggling to get it right.
So you can imagine how a small gesture, like a stuffed animal (and the people who care enough to give them), can make a big impact.
In the gym, we unloaded the stuffed animals—teddy bears, unicorns, gorillas, and more—across six fold-out tables. We lined them all up so they could smile at the girls sitting on the bleachers across from them, an assembly of cuteness and cheer.
Some of the girls came up and introduced themselves, with proper handshakes or heartfelt hugs. Some surveyed the tables, mentally picking out their new friend ahead of time. I fell in love with all of them immediately.
Sue Ellen Allen, ex-convict and the co-founder of Gina’s Team, acted as our emcee, and the girls absolutely love her. I don’t blame them. I’m pretty sure everyone who meets Sue Ellen is instantly smitten with her. She’s 69, bold, beautiful, honest, and her charisma is palpable. Most importantly, she knows how to talk to these girls. She knows how to tell her story.
Sue Ellen has done time for securities fraud. She knows what it’s like to make a bad choice and pay dearly for it. And the girls at Mingus? They’re on the precipice. If they aren’t rehabilitated, if they don’t work past their issues—be it a broken home situation, a lack of self-confidence, an addiction, a psychological or emotional compulsion—they’ll continue the cycle and wind up behind bars as soon as they can be tried as adults.
So our job at Mingus on Wednesday wasn’t just to make these girls happy by giving them presents and boatloads of sugar; it was to inspire them, to applaud how far they’ve come already, to show them that even though they’re going through hell, there’s something on the other side of it: hope.
When Sue Ellen asked how many of the girls were experiencing their first Christmas sober or off the streets, about 90% of the girls raised their hands. And that’s when the tears started for me.
They continued as the rest of the volunteers who traveled up to Mingus—most of whom have experienced time in prison and have found hope and stability on the other side—spoke to the girls and shared their words of love and wisdom.
I’m proud to say that I added my voice to the chorus. I asked the girls how many of them had a dream or something fabulous they wanted to do with their lives. Again, about 90% of the girls raised their hands. I told them that they need to keep thinking about what they want, because those thoughts can turn into actions, and those actions can pave the way for the rest of their lives. They just have to believe that they can do it, that they deserve it, and that if they work toward it, they can make it happen.
I told them I would continue to think about each and every one after leaving Mingus. I’ve kept my word. I think about those girls and the energy of hope and rehabilitation that cloaked us all that day. I hear their voices singing Christmas carols. I imagine their smiles and know that they have so much promise.
I look forward to seeing them again. I hope next time I can share stories of what I’ve overcome and what I’ve been able to accomplish despite adversity and my own internal struggles. I hope that I can help just one of them feel like she’s enough and she’s got it in her to change her own life and reshape her destiny.
A dusty, unpaved road in the hills of Prescott Valley leads you to Mingus Mountain Academy, a court-appointed rehabilitation facility for troubled girls aged 12-18. I can’t wait to go back.