Outreach to youth is more than just social work

Janice Ferebee's been down, but she came back, and now she's got it goin' on all over the place. Her mother's inspiration and her own personal setbacks have spurred the social work master's candidate and W.E.B. DuBois College House graduate fellow to devote her life to boosting teenagers' self-confidence and giving them the strength they need to resist the temptations of life in the 'hood.

Her mission to "encourage, enlighten and empower young people" -- especially young women -- takes many forms: motivational speeches, fitness videos, workshops, and a self-published workbook, "Got It Goin' On: An Image Awareness Guide for Young Ladies", which has been adopted for use in the Washington, D.C., public school system.

Workshops and motivational materials produced by Janice Ferebee (right) help build self-confidence in young women.

Photo by Mark Garvin

Her latest effort, a workshop called "Fitness and Fashion with Funk," began last October. The inspiration for it, she said, came while she was doing fieldwork for her master's degree at Olney High School. There, she said, she encountered youth from single-parent homes and children who either took drugs or had friends who did. "I found they were willing to exercise and felt comfortable asking questions," she said.

Which is what the 11- to 17-year-old girls in the workshop do: learn about fitness -- "the room is filled with a lot of educational, recreational and health information," Ferebee said -- and talk about their concerns.

One of the big concerns the girls talk about is dealing with their mothers. "They learn how to talk more with their moms and where their moms come from," she said. And as many of the girls' mothers also come to the workshops, she added, "it has become a good bonding experience. Many of the mothers said this is one of the only times their daughters let them hang out with them."

Ferebee's emphasis on mother-daughter bonding comes from the example set by her own mother, a dedicated volunteer who inspired her to a life of volunteer service. But there are three other life experiences that Ferebee says shaped her approach to dealing with youth at risk: a painful divorce, which left her an emotional wreck and forced her to rebuild her own self-esteem; her two stepsons from a previous marriage, whose relationships with young women taught her valuable lessons; and the physical challenges she faced after a series of operations, which led her to get back in top physical shape.

While Ferebee herself looks young enough to be the girls' best friend, at age 42 she is old enough to be their mother, which is why she has some of her DuBois House undergraduates assist with workshop sessions on an informal basis. "The undergrads are closer to the girls' age, and so the participants can identify with them a little more," she said. "I am the adult feature."

The DuBois House students are not the only people who pitch in to help Ferebee with her work. Neighborhood businesses such as My Favorite Muffin on 40th Street and Brown's Thriftway have donated food, and music stores and body-care chains such as The Body Shop have also offered gift certificates as door prizes -- "they're a little incentive for the girls to participate," she said.

Most of the free workshop's participants come from West Philadelphia, which suits Ferebee fine. "I believe we are guests in West Philadelphia and this is my way of giving back," she said.

Much of her approach was developed and refined while working for the Washington Area Project for Youth from 1990 to 1996. While in Washington, she also created the "Walk & Talk: Image and Physical Fitness for Girls" program, on which her latest program is modeled.

The first African-American Models Editor for Seventeen magazine stresses that her programs are not designed to change young women but to help them feel more confident about themselves as they are. "I teach them to be more comfortable in the skin you're in," she said.

"Fitness and Fashion with Funk" currently meets from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month at DuBois College House. DuBois House has expressed interest in continuing to house Ferebee's workshop on a weekly basis after she graduates this June.

Originally published on February 26, 1998