Giving Hope: Alternatives For Girls Helps At-Risk Youth
March 9, 2022
Detroit nonprofit Alternatives For Girls offers a new chance to at-risk young women
BY JACLYN TROP
On a frigid Friday in January 1988, a 16-year-old girl turned up at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Corktown with no place to go. “We looked at each other and said, ‘I guess we’re opening today,’ ” recalls Amy Good, the CEO of Alternatives For Girls, a southwest Detroit-based nonprofit that helps homeless and high-risk girls and young women find a better alternative to life on the streets.
A couple of years earlier, Good and her neighbors in southwest Detroit saw an uptick in truancy, homelessness, and prostitution among girls and women in their area. They assembled to discuss how to help prevent more girls from falling into gang involvement, drug or alcohol abuse, and early pregnancy.
Resources were slim, but “quitting was not an option,” says Good, a social worker. “We had to figure out how to keep these girls off the street.”
When the teen showed up at the church 34 years ago, Good and her team sprang into action, bootstrapping an emergency five-bed shelter at St. Peter’s overnight. “Initially we were just a project,” Good says. “We had no plans to become an agency ourselves. It became clear that if it was going to get done, we’d have to make it happen. If not us, then who?”
Six months later, a $376,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allowed them to expand to 12 beds, hire round-the-clock staff, and pay for their first van, a cornerstone in their fledgling street-outreach program. Over the next three decades, the volunteer-run program evolved into a nonprofit agency with more than 75 employees.
Today, Alternatives For Girls offers four core services, including providing emergency shelter and reaching out to at-risk girls and women on the street. “We’ll build a relationship over a long time until we gain their trust,” Good says. She estimates that the program has helped about 25,000 people since its inception.
A prevention program prepares girls in Kindergarten through 12th grade for college through after-school programs, summer camp, and mentoring. Alternatives For Girls helps each middle school student open a 529 college savings account and matches their deposits up to $500, although Good says she hopes to raise that to $2,000. “It is a real game-changer,” Good says, “to identify oneself as early as possible as college bound.”
A newer program helps homeless women find subsidized housing and become self-sufficient. Alternatives For Girls has partnered with Southwest Solutions in Detroit and Chicago-based Full Circle Communities, two agencies geared toward providing affordable housing and support services, to build a 45-unit development in Northwest Detroit to house women in need. Good says the project is on track to break ground this summer and open next year.
The development will serve women like Yolanda (she requested we only use her first name), 54, who credits Alternatives For Girls with helping turn her life around. Trafficked into sex work as a teen, she says she lived in a cycle of homelessness and prostitution for decades until enrolling in the program in 2019. “I never had anyone try to help me before,” she says. “I would keep on going in this cycle just trying to survive.”
Now Yolanda volunteers as a peer leader for Alternatives For Girls, helping women who are facing the same challenges, and works as an industrial sewing apprentice at Carhartt. The agency also partners with Beyond Juicery + Eatery and is looking for more local employers to hire participants. “It was tough for me to open up to people,” Yolanda says. “I always had to have a tough skin, but seeing other people who have been through that struggle made it easier for me to open up.”
The challenges that AFG faces are becoming more complex: The advent of the internet, for example, took sex work underground, making it harder to connect with sex trafficking victims. Alternatives For Girls has evolved, partnering with police agencies and making itself accessible online. “Initially, we hoped to get our hands around the problem so that we wouldn’t be needed 35 years later,” Good says. “But we will be here for as long as we’re needed.”