Acting Locally

 

Jacqueline Dupont can't ignore challenges in Colby's own backyard

By Neha Sud '05
Photography by Fred Field
 

One afternoon last summer Jacqueline Dupont '04 paced anxiously in her office at Waterville's South End Teen Center. Dupont, until recently an AmeriCorps teen coordinator at the the center, had organized a month-long series of workshops on HIV, AIDS, and safe sex.  

The guest speaker was upstairs, ready to start. The boys were in the living room playing video games, but where were the girls? As Dupont glanced at the clock, the door burst open. A young teenage girl sashayed in, wearing low-rise jeans and a bandanna tied around her bust.

"Go put on a T-shirt," Dupont said.

"But Jackie, it's too hot to wear a T-shirt," the girl replied.

At that moment, five more girls walked in. They quickly sided with their friend, and Dupont decided to let it go.

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Jacqueline Dupont '04 hanging out at the South End Teen Center in Waterville.
Photo by Fred Field
"They try to shock me, but I refuse to give in," she said. "I'd rather give them constructive, proactive attention."

And she has been doing that for three years, first as a volunteer during her senior year, then with AmeriCorps, and now as a full-time staffer at Hardy Girls Healthy Women, a Waterville nonprofit that develops opportunities, programs, and services that empower girls and women. And she continues to volunteer at the teen center as well. "I was seriously considering social work but I wasn't sure if I could cut it," she said. "Working at the teen center gave me the chance to figure out if I would sink or swim."

Dupont swam, and continues to navigate the often turbulent world of teenage girls, many of whom are facing dual challenges of adolescence and disadvantaged backgrounds. A human development major with a concentration in psychology, Dupont spent her senior year volunteering at the center as part of her education course requirements, then took the AmeriCorps position. "I knew in my gut that this was the next step for me to take," she said.

During the academic year, the teen center is assisted by 25 or more student volunteers from the Colby South End Coalition. Dupont was one of two full-time employees, responsible for programming, fund raising, public relations, organizing events such as weekend trips, car washes, bake sales, and sleepovers.  

She admits that at times her workload was overwhelming.  The teen center's open-door policy means there are always 20 or more kids stopping by after school"and Dupont was a mentor to many of them. "There are always situations where kids are getting into fights and doing drugs," she said. She tries to increase the teens' confidence by helping them focus on their positive characteristics. "By bolstering their assets you build their self esteem, and that is the tool we give them to resist a lot of the other pitfalls."

And there are many.

That afternoon at the workshop, the speaker asked the teens if they had a role model who inspired them to act responsibly. "My brother inspires me," said one of the girls. "He got his girlfriend pregnant when he was fifteen. They had the baby, but his girlfriend went away and took the child. Now he's seventeen and he can't even see his own kid. So he tells me that I shouldn't get pregnant yet."

The story opened a Pandora's box of pregnancy anecdotes. One girl said she has a friend who is 13 and pregnant. Police, she said, were considering prosecuting the friend's older boyfriend. As the teens continued to chatter about their friends' mishaps, the speaker steered the discussion towards safe-sex practices. An hour later, Dupont wrapped up the workshop by giving the teens a pop quiz on responsible sexual behavior.  
It was a good day, but Dupont is realistic about the extent of her influence given her limited time with her young charges. "I feel like I've failed personally when someone I've been working with falls off the track," she said. "We had one teen here who really turned around but then her family picked up and moved. Since then she really has crashed and burned, and there's nothing I can do about it."

Dupont paused. "But then, I'm not the catcher in the rye," she said.  

As the teens moved downstairs for recreation time, Dupont was asked if she is ever overwhelmed by this generation's problems. "People make mistakes," she said. "When you have a culture of poverty, you deal with a lot of these issues."

Growing up in Baltimore, Dupont was already familiar with the social repercussions of poverty and felt she had something to offer the young people in Waterville. "When people think about working with teenagers, they run the other way. Adolescents are responsive to me for some reason. I felt like it's my responsibility to use that skill."

In addition to dealing with the teens' problems, Dupont had to make her own transition from Colby to Waterville. She maintains that some Colby students' cynical view of Waterville is due to their perception of it as only a place to shop or go out to dinner or bars. "If that's your only relation to a place, then of course you will have a condescending perspective."  

Dupont said she prefers Waterville's hospitable, close-knit small-town culture to the anonymity of larger cities. "There's such a strong sense of community here. I love the small stores, the front-lawn economy of summer, the people who are always friendly," she said.  

In August Dupont, 24, became an official Waterville homeowner by purchasing a two-story house in the very South End neighborhood she serves. She will be living there for the next five years while she gets a master's degree in social work at the University of Maine. Along with volunteering at the teen center, she expects to remain on the staff of Hardy Girls Healthy Women at least until this fall.  

Dupont has no misgivings about dedicating herself to Waterville, she said. "I had the opportunity to make a difference, and I decided to do it," she said. "Now this place is my life."