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White Plains YWCA Program Creates GEMS

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Before Briana Peebles graduates from White Plains High School in June, she will "pass the candle" in the YWCA's Girls Empowered through Meaningful Support (GEMS) program Friday in a "moving up" ceremony.

GEMS is an after-school program at the YWCA, founded 40 years ago, for African-American and Latina girls from kindergarten to 12th grade. It serves up to 110 girls each school year, 100 percent of whom go on to college, said Nicole Stansbury, director of youth and community services at YWCA. She added there are 97 girls taking part this year.

"We start with the girls at such a young age, usually 5, that we build a relationship with their families," Stansbury said. "The girls are committed and the families are connected, so they stay."

GEMS holds weekly workshops for each age group on topics such as self esteem, body image, culture, writing and more. It also holds field trips and college trips. By the time some members are high school seniors, they have seen 50 colleges through the program. To be able to attend college trips, members must make the honor roll. Peebles has done so every marking period since sixth grade.

Peeples is a "striver," which is what girls in the program are called when they are in high school. Those in middle and elementary school are called a "faize" and "little sisters."

At Friday's ceremony, returning GEM graduates, now in college, will light a candle for graduating high school seniors, like Peebles, to welcome them into their group, Stansbury said.

Similarly, current strivers will light candles for faizes entering high school, and faizes will light candles for little sisters entering middle school.

Apree Choice, 13, is one of about 12 girls entering high school. There are also about 12 girls entering middle school, and eight graduating from high school, Stansbury said. Amani Johnson, who will will begin at Highlands Middle School in the fall, is a third generation GEM, and her grandmother was part of the original program in 1972.

"The whole premise is that our program is a sisterhood," she said. "Our high school girls graduating will be welcomed into their group."

Peebles joined GEMS in the first grade and has remained engaged in the program throughout school. The University of Virginia-bound senior plans to become a second-grade teacher, and has racked up over 500 hours volunteering with GEMS working with the "little sisters."

"The program has helped me dramatically," Peebles said. "GEMS has played a huge role because working with the girls, I think that is what drove me to education."

Stansbury herself was part of GEMS growing up. During high school, she said she didn't want to go to college but that the director of the program at the time, Heather Miller, gave her the guidance and direction she needed.

The candle-lighting ceremony is at 8 p.m. at the YWCA White Plains and Central Westchester on 515 North St. The next day, the GEMS family will take a trip to Dorney Park in Pennsylvania.

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