afterschool science experiment Gwen's Girls

Gwen’s Girls is growing, with powerful new programs and a new home in the works

Photos courtesy of Gwen’s Girls via KDKA. 

The numbers are startling: A study by the Black Girls Equity Alliance in 2020 found that black girls are 10 times more likely than white girls to be referred to juvenile justice, and the majority of arrests are for minor offenses that are not safety related. Pittsburgh Public Schools was the largest referral source in Allegheny County for Black girls — and the district referred students to law enforcement at rates higher than 95% of similar U.S. cities.

A year ago, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Gwen’s Girls created Caring Connections for YOUth to intervene before law enforcement is called, and the organization is now expanding in even more ways.

Girls come to the program with curiosity — about science, the world and each other.


At their after-school program on the North Side on a recent afternoon, elementary-aged girls were led by a CMU student who had placed a box in front of them at the table where they were sitting. The CMU student asked: “Can you look inside?”

The girls all immediately leaned over and peered inside. “That’s a tiny little computer,” the instructor said.

In another room, teenage girls were busy working with an instructor on chemistry, mixing different liquids in a clear water bottle.

“If it sinks, density is higher,” one of the girls told the instructor, as they analyzed why some liquids sink and others rise.

Gwen’s Girls offers programming for girls from third through twelfth grade in Allegheny County to empower them, offering help with schoolwork and life skills, and a place where they can be themselves.

“I continue returning to Gwen’s Girls because they give us the floor to speak about issues, not just in our personal lives but that we may see in our communities,” says 15-year-old Olivia Davidson from Churchill, who comes to the afterschool program.

Saniya Smalls, also 15-years-old and from the Hill District in Pittsburgh, also appreciates that freedom to speak. “I like that we can have a lot of fun,” she says, “and we could express ourselves without having to like sugarcoat our feelings.”

Gwen’s Girls CEO, Dr. Kathi Elliott, who is the daughter of founder Gwen Elliott, says Gwen’s Girls is undergoing a renaissance. The organization is breaking ground this spring on a new facility in Wilkinsburg, designed with input from the girls and the community.

In just its first year, the Caring Connections for YOUth program has already helped 130 families. It’s designed to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by providing services and supports for kids and families before a situation escalates to the justice system.

photo courtesy of Gwen's Girls via KDKA

“Oftentimes, when (juveniles) are referred to the court, it takes weeks — months, sometimes — for them to even get the attention that they need,” Dr. Elliott says. “Here is an opportunity for us to get them that early intervention.”

Sara Nevels runs Caring Connections for YOUth, helping young people and families with resources for therapy, anger management, life skills and mentoring, as well as critical needs like food and transportation.

Schools, law enforcement or anyone can call the United Way’s 211 helpline and be connected with Caring Connections for YOUth for situations like fights, truancy and minor offenses.

“We’re molding young adults, and you don’t necessarily mold young adults by just punishing and criminalizing,” Nevels says. “You mold them by teaching, by replacing that behavior with something more appropriate, something more constructive and giving them outlets.”

The girls say it’s working.

“I know a lot of women who are implemented into the juvenile justice system, or become victim to the school-to-prison pipeline, don’t have the support that they need to work toward their dreams and aspirations,” Davidson says. “So that’s kind of what Gwen’s Girls does.”

Through all of its programming, Gwen’s Girls is helping girls reach their potential.

“Gwen’s Girls is more of a sisterhood that way,” Davidson says. “We have more bonded experiences and more stuff in common.”

Elliott agrees: “That is what truly I think my mother would be so proud about — the vision of Gwen’s Girls not just being for girls, but girls, their family and the community.”

If you know a young person, girl or boy, who needs help, you can reach Caring Connections for YOUth by calling 211 and choosing option 2, or by clicking right here.