Ana Lopez knows about the low expectations faced by many young Latinas. She was born in Silver Spring and lived in this area until middle school, when her parents moved back to Puerto Rico. They moved to Orlando when Lopez was in high school.
Even though she had a 4.0 grade-point average, the school insisted she be tested for the English as a Second Language Program. When she told her guidance counselor she wanted to go to Vanderbilt, the counselor asked her what her “realistic” choice was. “I wanted to wave my Vanderbilt acceptance letter in her face,” Lopez says.
She often tells her story to girls in the Community Bridges program she heads in Silver Spring. In just a few years, the organization has grown from serving 75 girls in three schools to working with almost 400 in 16 schools. The Jump Start Girls program serves elementary- and middle-schoolers.
These girls discount themselves because so little is often expected of them. They often talk about becoming maids or working in service industries because that’s what their parents do. Community Bridges works to give them the confidence and skills to become exceptional students, healthy women, community leaders.
The program LUNA (Luchando Unidas con Nuestras Amigas) helps recently arrived Latinas in middle school adapt to their new community while preserving their heritage. In Dream Catchers, eighth-graders are matched with role models. Another program—Glow! Young Women Leading the Way—allows high-schoolers to explore their identities and expand their horizons. Community Bridges also has a summer camp, which started by focusing on the outdoors and now involves girls in community service.
In Lopez’s first year at Community Bridges, an elementary-school girl was suspended for bringing a knife to school. It turned out she was trying to scare a bully who was threatening her. She also had problems at home—her father had gone to jail and her mother was about to be evicted.
“We gave her a lot of attention,” Lopez says. Before long, the girl said, “I wouldn’t miss a day of Jump Start for the world.” She was able to confront the bully armed not with a knife but with new confidence and self-worth.
Lopez feels she always had a special advantage: “I come from a family of strong, fiery women who, despite disadvantages, always believed they could succeed.”
Now she’s a strong, fiery woman for a new generation of girls.