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First cookies, now lessons in babies

Animatronic babies teach teenage girls lessons on teen pregnancy and real infants in a Girl Scout program in Miami.

Associated Press

Animatronic babies teach teenage girls lessons on teen pregnancy and real infants in a Girl Scout program in Miami.

MIAMI — Debby is crying, and 12-year-old Solmeshia Hooks doesn't know how to make it stop.

She changes the diaper. She tries a bottle. She rocks it.

Debby still wails.

"I don't know what it wants to do!" the girl says.

Debby isn't real, but Solmeshia's exasperation sure is. And that's exactly what her Girl Scout leaders want.

The animatronic doll is used in an activity about teen pregnancy, part of a larger program called "Decisions for Your Life" that reaches out to girls in Miami's low-income neighborhoods.

Participants still sell cookies, attend jamborees and visit museums like any other troop, but they also tackle tougher issues including drug abuse and conflict resolution.

"The girls are able to participate in all the fun activities that Girl Scouts have always provided. We go by the same Girl Scout promise, the same Girl Scout law," said Maria Tejera, chief executive officer of the Girl Scout Council of Tropical Florida.

The program "is a portion of their life in Girl Scouting, but it's a very important portion," Tejera said.

Nationally, Girl Scouts have been updating their image. The 96-year institution offers a "Girl Scouts Beyond Bars" program for girls with parents in prison and an antiviolence education project. The organization works with juveniles in detention centers and girls who live in rural areas.

"We don't believe that girls need to be isolated in their little groups," Tejera said. "They are in their housing development or they are in a migrant camp, and we deliver programs there. But we make sure that those girls have the opportunity to participate in councilwide events."

Decisions for Your Life — one of the first programs to bring the Girl Scouts into housing projects — was established in the 1980s.

Today, of the 1,265 girls ages 11 to 17 who live in county housing projects, 832 participate in the program, said Cynthia Moore, Miami-Dade Housing Agency's assistant director of public housing.

"It helps to change the stereotypical image of what people think of public housing," Moore said. "We're no different than anyone else."

Concerns that too many young girls in Miami were having babies persuaded officials to again focus this year's program on teenage pregnancy, Tejera said. It is the third year that officials have tackled the issue and used the dolls as teaching tools.

Officials from the Miami-Dade Health Department help educate the girls and visit troops at least twice a year, said Almira Thomas-Gayle, a county community health nurse. The Girl Scout program focuses on abstinence, but Thomas-Gayle said birth control might be discussed.

But the best instruction might be the hands-on lessons.

The building rang with howls from the mechanical dolls on the July morning when the girls received their dolls. The grating cries were constant and stopped only if a Scout fed, changed or rocked the doll.

The girls were also given vests to simulate the weight of pregnancy, completed worksheets about childcare and transportation costs and kept a journal. They traveled with a baby carrier bumping at their knees, and sometimes drew unwanted stares.

"It was a great experience," said 16-year-old Catashia Wells. "I learned how to take care of babies. I learned how to handle babies. I learned to go through the experience, which led me to determine that I don't want to have a baby right now."

First cookies, now lessons in babies 08/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 1:11pm]
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