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Jacksonville alternative school home to new safe space for girls

Mental health counselor creates a sanctuary for troubled teens

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There is a new safe space for troubled teenage girls at a Jacksonville alternative school. A mental health counselor came up with the idea while interning at Mattie V. Rutherford. She noticed the space where they counsel young women needed work, so she decided to make a difference.

Kids are sent to Mattie V. when they have trouble in their home school, usually only for stints that range from 45 to 90 days. Thanks to the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, there is a program called 'See The Girl' that helps these young women -- it's the same program where Rabiah Burk is interning.

When Burk first started, sessions were held in an old classroom with dark tables and plastic and metal chairs. It was a place where these girls were supposed to feel comfortable opening up, but Burk just felt it was not an environment where students could feel safe letting down their guards.

"I hadn't been in a classroom in 30 years," Burk said. "It reminded me of a little mini prison almost."

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Knowing something had to be done, Burk set out to make some bold changes.

"Instead of having a classroom, we wanted a place to make students at ease," Burk explained. "Where they are more open to talking about what it is that is at the bottom of their situation."

Burk reached out to Ikea and started designing a room with couches, plants, positive messages, art work and welcoming colors. The price tag was going to be around $5,000, so she started a GoFundMe account. She raised the funds within days. Then Allied Plastics stepped up and donated dry erase tables to fill the center spaces.

The room is comprised of five zones. It follows something called "SAVVY," which is part of Delores Barr Weaver's program. Each area in the room represents a different letter of the word. For instance, the S corresponds with it being a safe space, the A stands for action and one V stands for values.

Principal Maurice Nesmith said the change its already having an impact on students taking part in the program. "Number one, our students have been able to build self esteem," he said. "Understand their worth and problem-solve through situations and conflict resolution."

Now, Burk is looking to expand the program to reach other kids. She said, "I think it's really important that every school has a place that kids can go to and feel safe and decompress. To talk about whatever it is they need instead of feeling lost, because with teenagers that's what happens."

Burk hopes to provide more rooms like this in schools around the area and she's looking for sponsors and donors who can help make that happen. To learn more about the program Delores Barr Weaver launched in 2013, click here.