Manatee's Just for Girls holds commencement for 15 grads

June 6, 2013

PALMETTO -- Sierra Reid was an angry adolescent.

She was disrespectful, blew off homework and never listened to anyone trying to talk sense to her.

"I didn't care about anything or anybody," the poised 14-year-old said Wednesday. "I just cared about my way of thinking."

Not anymore, thank goodness.

"I've become a better person," she said.

Credit the Jane B. Pratt Alternative School Just for Girls, its devoted staff and supporters for the transformation.

Reid did just that in a forthright speech during Wednesday's eighth-grade commencement in the Kendrick Auditorium at the Manatee County Faigrounds.

Fifteen graduated in all, girls like Sierra, who came to Just for Girls with issues involving behavior, truancy or academics.

"They have turned their lives around and it is a privilege to be part of that," said Executive Director Becky Canesse. "Financially, it's

been a challenge to continue what we're doing, but we're going to make this happen no matter what it takes. These are girls' lives and there's no greater value than that."

One of those girls is eighth-grader Olivia Burnett, named Best Overall Student, who will attend Manatee School for the Arts.

"This school gives the kids a little better look at the real world at an earlier age and prepares them better for high school," her father, Todd, said.

Those words resonate for Sierra Reid.

"They opened my eyes," the future Palmetto High School student said. "I realized from talking to teachers and counselors I had to change -- for me, my little sister and others looking up to me.

"I've done that, but I need to keep doing the right thing and be a leader for others, help them become better people. Because if I can do it, anybody can do it."

Director Dee Ralph said the young lady was selling herself short.

"Sierra had it in her whole time, but anger clouded her judgment," she said. "Her transition came from caring staff members, a small environment, the ability to talk with her and challenge her to take responsibility for her own behavior, not blame others and listen to those giving her strategies to be successful."

The program, which has 50 girls, is part of the nonprofit started in 1969 to give educational, developmental and prevention programs to young girls.

"We want to see them as great members of our community," the director said. "Come back and say, 'Ms. Ralph, you were tough on me, but I needed that at the time and now I'm a nurse,' or, 'I'm in college.' That's our reward."

Sierra Reid plans on being such an alum.

She wants to be a pediatrician.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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