It isn’t always easy. Every one of us has that one dark memory, that one bully, that one regret that creeps back every so often. Did you let that define you? Shawnta Pulliam’s answer is no.
Pulliam grew up in a single-parent home in neighborhoods at 24th and Wallace streets and Franklin Terrace on 12th and Franklin streets during the 1980s drug epidemic. At the time, her dad was incarcerated and Pulliam spent much of her youth helping her mom by taking care of her younger siblings.
“Ultimately, the anger I had inside led me to get expelled from the Erie School District,” says Pulliam.
This isn’t a sad story. It’s one of a woman who was able to rise above – on her own.
Pulliam wasn’t stuck. She got out of that bad situation, that bad mentality, and is now helping other girls in Erie do the same thing.
Nurturing Hearts is the nonprofit Pulliam founded in 2005. Its mission is to help at-risk girls in Erie rise above negative situations, be it abuse, low self-esteem, peer pressure, or even the trials of living in a single-family home.
The story of Pulliam’s formative years isn’t an uncommon one. Erie currently has the highest rates of juvenile probations and teenage pregnancies in the entire state of Pennsylvania. That’s more than Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as Allentown and Scranton. That’s disconcerting.
“A lot has to do with the environment. There’s a mentality passed down from grandparents to parents that isn’t encouraging. It’s a generational curse,” Pulliam says with steady eyes. Her gaze suggests one that has accepted the past for what it was, and is more concerned with what the future offers. She’s lovely; dressed to the nines and sitting up straight, comfortable in her own skin.
“Girls think if they have a baby, they’ll have a sense of independence,” she explains. “It’s a way to move out of their parents’ house. But they don’t feel like they have a bigger purpose. Having a baby shouldn’t be the first thing on your mind as a teenager; it’s children raising children.”
So Pulliam teaches girls of Erie how to take the road to fully polished potential – just like she did. See, her mom transferred her to Community Preparatory Academy of which, Pulliam says, “I realized I needed to get my education, to graduate from high school. After I pursued that, I found out I was pretty smart.”
With the support of her teachers, she graduated valedictorian. She went on to Gannon University where she graduated in 2000 with an associate’s degree in criminal justice and psychology. She then worked in social services, where her education helped her in the juvenile probation field.
Pulliam is still quick to credit her days at the Community Preparatory Academy for giving her the positive boost she needed.
“The atmosphere at Community Prep was more like a family,” she says. “They just believed in you and encouraged you to do your best and not settle for mediocre. Sister Mary Beth Kennedy, the founder of the school, is my inspiration – a great leader.”
Now Pulliam leads a group of 60 girls for six months at a time on a similar path to success. Nurturing Hearts holds group discussions, lectures, motivational speakers, and one-on-ones. For the first two months, girls are encouraged to strengthen their self-esteem and replace negative thinking with positive thinking. The next two months focus on relationship building, healthy living, and the difference between love, lust, and infatuation. They then learn etiquette, how to address authority figures, and the ever-relevant skill of setting and following through with goals. The group takes field trips to Erie’s universities, alternative education institutes, and social service agencies to finalize the program.
“There are ground rules,” says Pulliam. “I let them know the first day that what is said in the room stays in the room, and that we’re here for one purpose. All of us need to work together and encourage each other. We’re going to get through this as a team. We’re all sisters.”
The sure-footed influence of Nurturing Hearts is permeating. Pulliam says reading graduated girls’ letters of success stories have brought tears to her eyes.
One story of triumph was of a girl Pulliam saw while Nurturing Hearts was in its pilot stage at Gannondale Center for Girls in 2006. The girl was known to have psychological and behavioral issues, and staff would have to be in the room to monitor her when Pulliam visited.
“I always go in thinking and believing I can help. If you think differently, they’ll pick up on that,” Pulliam says. “Maybe they’ll get it now, maybe they’ll get it later, but that seed has been planted.”
The seed that was planted in the mind of the girl from Gannondale germinated and bloomed. She ended up going back to high school, graduating, then going on to the University of Philadelphia. The woman who once was that troubled girl now works for the Philadelphia School District.
“Sometimes you question yourself, ‘Am I helping these girls?’ When you get that, it’s confirmation,” says Pulliam, who runs this program all the while holding down a 9-to-5 at GE. She’s worked there for 10 years and currently holds the job title of Safety Monitor and Plant Protection Officer. Pulliam spends her precious free time growing this nonprofit, but she doesn’t consider it “work.” When she thinks back to her old friends and neighbors who succumbed to that generational curse, it motivates her to press on with her efforts.
“My passion is Nurturing Hearts. I couldn’t help but look back on the girls I left behind. It was the pain of the girls in the inner city; they get bogged down with responsibility and negative situations. They would get out of it a lot faster if they had someone tell them, ‘Hey, you’re going through a photo album that’s your life. This is just one portrait.’”
Pulliam and I both agree that it takes a village to raise a child. “We need to be surrogate parents in our community,” she says with surety. Pulliam has stared Nature in the face, and now relies on Nurture to help the girls of Erie. Just as she got out of that bad situation, that bad mentality, she’s showing others that they can do the same thing and become positive influences in their communities.
You can be a part of the village. Nurturing Hearts is one of the eligible nonprofits for the Erie Community Foundation’s Erie Gives Day. On August 14 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., a donation of $25 or more will be matched by the foundation. For more information about Nurturing Hearts, visit the website at nurturing-hearts.org, or call 814.460.5954. Show Nurturing Hearts and Erie that this one’s for the girls.
Julia Nene can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org