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Part Two 

A Hard-Knock Life

[image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)JoElle and the other residents practice African dance steps. Tonight, they are performing an African-style ceremony before the dancing begins. Kacy, whose grandmother recently died, leads it. Her grandmother's picture is in the frame. Kacy lights the candle and pours water from a blue cup into another.

"We stir right, for ourselves," she says. "We stir left, for our future." JoElle dips her index finger in the water, and touches each girl — and each person present — on the forehead to include them in the ceremony.

Kacy, who wants to become a doctor, has chosen red for her hair color tonight — just a highlight for her shiny black up 'do. She usually jokes around, laughing through round cheeks and an easy smile. But about this, she is serious. From a piece of paper, she reads a poem about her grandmother. Then she blows out the candle.

Watching her tonight it's difficult to believe Kacy cites her fierce temper as one of her greatest weaknesses. When she came to Brookfield, she says, it was "shorter than a fuse." She'd slam doors, wreck her room and play loud music. The police have been called five times since she arrived, she says. At the residential lockdown facility where she stayed before Brookfield, she says, they'd give her drugs to help cope. But at Brookfield she's had to learn how to handle it herself.

Her wake-up call, she says, was her grandmother's death four days before Christmas. Because Kacy came from a scattered family — she hasn't seen her mother since she was 13 — she thought of her grandmother as a role model. And she recalled her grandmother visiting Brookfield, telling her to "be good, and not to worry."

Now, she says, she understands that she has control over how she acts. Someone may upset her, she says, but she is in charge of herself. That's been her biggest accomplishment, she says — and her most difficult.

And through it all, she has received a steady diet of plays, concerts and hip-hop dance classes. "If we didn't have that," Kacy says, "I don't know what I would do."

Now "I expect the best out of life," she says. "I'm a woman."

After the candle-lighting ceremony, the girls return to the African dance class. They are spaced out in two rows of two, arching their bare feet, stretching their arms and following the instructions of the Elegba teacher.

A piercing ba-BOOM, ba-BOOM beat echoes into the ceiling and back to the floor from two men pounding African drums.

JoElle is bounding through the steps. Cameron, the leader of the group, is wearing her short, blonde-highlighted hair in braids tonight. She is watching the instructor closely. And in the back row, is Sara, the newest girl at Brookfield.

Sara is slender with pale skin, her light-brown hair pulled into a ponytail. Tonight she wears gray sweatpants, a T-shirt with the word "Princess" on the front and a ring in her nose. She is "chill," she explains. "Just chill." She doesn't front for anybody, and she doesn't seem interested in African dancing tonight.

"I'll do that next time," she tells the instructor, who has wandered over to guide her through some steps. She limps through the moves, seemingly tired. "I'm not trying to get all up in it today cause I'm about to pass out," she explains.

A counselor standing off to the side shoots a look to another one.

Sara doesn't like Brookfield, she says later. "I didn't like it whenever I walked in the door. I didn't like it when I saw the building. Didn't like the name of it — anything."

Sara, who wears a necklace with a cross her mom gave her, just wants to get out of Brookfield and go home to Newport News. At the same time, her home is one of the reasons she's here.

She was a normal girl, she recalls, before she was 12 or 13. Then she got bored. "I was just tired of everything," she says. "Tired of always having to be so good. … Not doing anything exciting or anything. So I was just like, forget it, I'm going to do something different with my life."

One night, when a friend was staying over, they stole some pot out of her mom's room and smoked it. After that, she started drinking at parties, taking liquor from her parents when they weren't home, slipping Crown Royal into Mountain Dew bottles to take to school.

When her mother and stepfather found out, first they were upset that she stole their stash, Sara says. Eventually, they realized that she needed to stop. At 14 or 15, she ran away to a friend's house, and was caught at a hotel in Williamsburg.

She was taken to detention, and then began a back-and-forth pattern between foster homes, detention, group homes, detention, and so forth. After a stint at the Jackson-Feild Home for Girls in Jarratt, she was moved to Brookfield.

[image-2](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Tom Williamson describes Sara, above, as "a hard egg with a lot of soft stuff inside." As far as the cultural events go, she tries to get out of them as much as she can, she says. She's not looking forward to seeing "Annie" at the Carpenter Center, which comes up in a couple of weeks. But she's got to go — it's required.

"I hate it," she says. "I've never grown up doing anything like that. And it's like, all of a sudden I've got to do everything different. Whenever I turn 18 I'm not going to have to do all this crap, so why I gotta do it here?"

Brookfield's Williamson describes Sara as "a hard egg with a lot of soft stuff inside." The counselors say she is a chameleon. She is compliant, she is stubborn. But she makes the other girls laugh. And her smile betrays her sometimes, they say. They've seen glints when she enjoys a show. But Sara maintains she just wants to get it over with. Her motto: "Fake it till you make it."

When she grows up, she says, she'd like to be a corrections officer, or a group-home counselor.

The first girl out of Brookfield may be Cameron. She is the leader, the advice-giver of the group. She is boy-crazy and boisterous. When she smiles, she shows a gap between her two front teeth. She used to be ruthless in letting people know where they stood with her, but she has a conscience now. She was a runaway. She kicked drugs and now she's trying to kick cigarettes.

Tonight, at a group pottery class, Cameron is wearing a black tank top with "Sugar" written on the front. She's working on stenciling "Happy Birthday" into an inch-thick circle of clay the size of a plate.

She's made a tiny hand, too. Carefully, she forms it into shape, the fingers straight, except for the middle one, which bends upwards. The girls are joking, some of them. JoElle's in a mood, though. Cameron rubs clay in her hands in a bowl of water, wondering aloud whether they should put it on their faces as a mask.

When Cameron was 7 years old, her mother had a stroke. She never knew her dad — she thought he had left her. As she grew up, she got into drugs. She had trouble with her family and ended up with her aunt. But she started running away. She lived in Lynchburg. "The cops down there don't really care about runaways," she says.

Her aunt got tired of it, Cameron says, and finally the Department of Social Services transferred her to Richmond, where she ended up in a youth emergency shelter, a group home in the West End and then here to Brookfield.

She was open to the arts component, explains her foster-care social worker, Anita King. "It just really seemed like a good fit."

Cameron says she appreciates the activities. But she doesn't like being forced to go. In the same breath, she says she never would have gone to see the ballet "Cinderella" on her own. It turned out to be one of her favorites.

Since Cameron moved into Brookfield, Social Services has found her biological father. It turns out he had thought all these years that she'd been adopted — her mother had taken her and run. They met for the first time in court.

"It was wild because we look just alike," Cameron says. Now, she travels on weekends to Providence Forge, where he lives with his wife and their children. It will be her new family. Her dad is kind, loveable and laid-back, Cameron says — "He don't like drama." And already, she feels comfortable with him, she adds: "We act like we've known each other all our life."

King couldn't be happier. "It really sounds like it is about as good as it can get for Cameron," she says.

And in the end, despite all the emphasis on dance and music and art, the real-life experiences — finding a father, conquering a temper, planning a future, forging friendships — may seem to be the most meaningful things Brookfield can foster.

Sometimes, though, art does connect to real life. The girls were ordered to see "Annie." None of them want to go. But when the time comes off to the Carpenter Center they troop. Then, onstage, they see girls pretending to be orphans. They sing about their hard-knock lives. They dance. Annie finds a father.

To her surprise, "I related," Cameron says. "It opened my spirit a little bit. It made me think of my dad." And even though it was a musical, she says, it felt close to her situation, the part about "kind of trying to find a family and stuff that really loved me."

That's the sort of realization that Williamson preaches can change lives. And the arts may also help in ways the girls never know, Williamson says.

Through the arts, "kids can work out, either consciously or unconsciously, problems within their own personality," he says. "And I think that goes for everything — maybe a painting. It could be a rock band. But it can really help them problem-solve within themselves."

Considering the big things the girls deal with, Williamson says, seeing a play, hearing a concert or learning a creative skill may not seem to fit. "It's sort of incidental to their lives," he says. "But I would maintain that somewhere it's going to light a spark."

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