Girls make lasting memories at Darien nonprofit

Girls from A Better Chance in Darien decorate cookies at a host family home. Back row: Chelsi, Henyesi, Hassana; front row: Lexi, Angie, Osaru. Missing from photo: E’Sachi, Karys.

When E’Sachi Smalls was searching for high school programs, she wanted one that would provide the comforts of home but also one that would foster independence.

She found what she was looking for, and much more, at A Better Chance.

Founded in 1963, A Better Chance is a national program created to give students of color from underserved communities a better opportunity to be successful in college.

More than 300 schools in the United States participate with A Better Chance. While some are boarding schools and day programs, 22 are community school programs, like Darien. The Darien program began in 1982.

In the Darien program, eight high-school age girls — two per grade level — live together over the course of the school year in a private family home.

Two resident directors — Beth and Peter Horan — live in the home with the girls. The directors provide guidance and support, organize activities, and make sure the girls are happy and on track.

All the girls attend Darien High School.

Girls from A Better Chance travel to Manhattan to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. From left, E’Sachi, Chelsi, Angie, Hassana.

E’Sachi, who is now 17 and in her last year at A Better Chance, said she has learned so much, including being comfortable speaking with adults.

“I speak to adults all of the time,” said E’Sachi, who lives in Bronx, N.Y. Adults include the resident directors and board members of the program, and her teachers at school.

“It excites me to know that I can go to my teachers and feel so comfortable asking them for help at any time,” she said, adding that talking to adults is a skill that will help her in her future.

When E’Sachi first came to A Better Chance, it was an adjustment, she said.

“You have a roommate and live with seven other girls,” she said. “We have chores.”

“You figure it out as you go,” she added.

E’Sachi plans to become a nurse practitioner and has been accepted at six colleges and universities.

She said she is greatly enjoying her senior year in the program. “We are so harmonious. The chemistry this year is so exciting. I just love coming home every day.”

Alexus Mitchell, 16, is also living in the Better Chance house in Darien this year. She’s a junior and is taking pre-calculus, physics, American literature, American studies, Spanish, humanities, and investing and personal finance.

She said her favorite part about the program is living under the same roof with the other girls.

“I don’t have any sisters. I only have a brother and he’s 5 years old,” said Alexus, who is from the Bronx.

She also said a great part about the program is all the help the girls get to succeed.

“We have study hall Monday through Thursday, and tutors from the high school come to help us,” Alexus said. “Last year, many of the girls who were struggling in physics got a tutor to help them. This year, when I took physics, the girls who took it last year helped me.”

A highlight of her years in the program was whitewater rafting in Pennsylvania.

“It was the first time that we bonded,” Alexus said. “At one point, we got stuck on a rock and it took teamwork to push off the rock.”

She said another special memory was doing an obstacle course, ropes and ziplining in Massachusetts.

“I was scared of heights,” Alexus said. “The other girls and co-presidents (of the program) pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

After school, the girls are active in many activities and classes including volleyball, basketball, track, softball, cheerleading, model UN, and hip-hop.

All the girls stay one weekend a month with a host family in town. They go home once a month and for all holidays and summers.

Girls travel to CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan. From left, Chelsi, Hassana, E’Sachi, Henyesi, Karys, Angie, Osaru, Lexi.

Getting in

A Better Chance has an income ceiling which varies by family size, according to Pat Cage, co-president of Darien’s program, along with Kimberly Servas.

“For Darien, we try to serve needier families,” Cage said. “We recruit girls from the tri-state area.”

The town provides for the education of the girls.

The annual budget of the Darien program is $170,000, which covers items such as food, trash collection, heat, water, air conditioning, and electricity, as well as tutors, computers, activities and entertainment.

The cost is covered by private donations. “A Better Chance receives no financial assistance from the national program,” Cage said. “All funds are raised on an annual basis through the our Annual Appeal, Spring Raffle and periodic gala events.”

Each girl’s family pays an annual fee of $500 to participate in the program. Families are responsible for costs related to sports and after school activities.

The girls receive a biweekly allowance from A Better Chance. They are responsible for their own clothes, toiletries and personal items.

College bound

The girls need to maintain a B average in order to stay in the program.

“One hundred percent of our graduates go on to get a college degree,” Cage said.

Colleges that recent graduates have attended include Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania, Amherst and MIT in Massachusetts, and Columbia in New York.

Former students in the program have been hired in the film industry, gone to medical school, joined the ministry, and become a restaurant owner.

Alexus said several years ago she would never have imagined herself in a program such as A Better Chance.

“I’ve grown so much socially and academically,” she said. “I now talk more about how I feel and have better public speaking skills.”

She added that the girls “are a sisterhood.”

“We share a bond together. I can trust them with anything.”

For more information on A Better Chance, visit abetterchance.org.

sfox@darientimes.com