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Neighborhoods: East Liberty woman gets grant for outreach

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Growing up, Ashley Moorefield turned to a mentor at the Homewood YMCA when things at home were rough. She credits her faith and her mentor with helping her rise above a less-than-perfect domestic situation -- and now, at 23, she's reaching out to younger girls and giving them a hand up, mentoring them through discussions and service projects.

And she's just gotten a little help for her work from Avon, the company perhaps best known for door-to-door lipstick sales.

Through Avon's Hello Tomorrow grant program, Moorefield and her husband's East Liberty group, Taking Youth Higher, has received $5,000. Her program was selected from a field of more than 750 applicants, shortlisted by Avon and ultimately picked by a panel of celebrity judges including financial guru Suze Orman and actress Phylicia Rashad.

"I have a sister who's 15, she would come to me with her issues, her and her friends," Moorefield, 23, says as she tends to her squalling toddler son. She would advise the girls about doing well in school and resisting peer pressure to try self-destructive behaviors, and soon found herself reaching out to kids she'd see hanging out in East Liberty, Homewood, Larimer and Garfield. Her advice and listening became a formal group this June, with about a dozen kids -- mostly girls -- from ages 11 to 17 gathering in her home.

"All of the kids are high-risk youth. When they come out of their house, they don't see a neighbor who's a lawyer, a neighbor who's a doctor," Moorefield says. "We cover topics like self-esteem, academic success, peer pressure, abstinence. We have weekly meetings and monthly field trips." That's in addition to the calls, texts and e-mails she takes from the kids all week long. Past field trips have included carpooled jaunts to the movies or cleaning up church parking lots. With more cash, Moorefield hopes to take the kids to places like Washington, D.C.

Once a week for the past two years, the cosmetics giant has awarded microgrants to social programs across the U.S. The company operates similar programs in more than a dozen other countries.

"The best way to change the world is to empower women," says Susan Arnot Heaney, director of corporate responsibility for Avon Products, Inc.

Winners have come from every state but Hawaii: Eight have come from Pennsylvania. Grants have been awarded to "community gardens, formerly incarcerated women re-entering society, baby supplies for underprivileged women. It runs the gamut," says Heaney. "The creativity is fascinating and sometimes the need is heartbreaking -- it underscores how little it takes to make a big difference."

Moorefield plans to use the cash to help fund the monthly field trips the group takes and possibly secure a more permanent place to meet -- the group is outgrowing her own home.

Moorefield's group discusses sexual abstinence, a controversial program in other contexts, but it seems she handles the topic with a deft touch: "Although we're not Christian-based, my personal values inform what I do," she says. "I don't want to be naïve to think they're not doing it or not going to. That's where a lot of programs mess up." Safer-sex techniques are brought up, but abstinence is emphasized. Heaney says Avon takes no stance one way or the other: "We intentionally did not give specific guidelines of what type of programs we were looking for." Moorefield was selected as a winner on the strength of her mentoring program, she adds.

The group is currently selling tickets to a fundraising brunch on Dec. 27. To participate in the program, contact Ashley Moorefield at www.takingyouthhigher.com.

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