ellen_woods_edline_demajuste_web.jpg(Florida International University) – Edline Demajuste, then a shy 14, first sang in public at a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Day celebration in 2008. She took a deep breath, glanced at her mentor Ellen Woods for reassurance, closed her eyes and launched into gospel singer Marvin Sapp’s He Saw the Best in Me.

Edline and Woods were strangers living very different lives when they were brought together by the nonprofit organization Girl Power, that seeks to support girls aged 11 to 17 from its base in Liberty City.

Edline was forced into the program.  Woods wanted to change someone’s life.

Woods was reserved during their first outings, but now she smiles brightly when discussing their memories. Through Girl Power’s “Sister Circle” mentoring program, they have built a bond.

“I hope that in this point in her life she continues to trust me and continues to know that she can always come to me for anything,” says Woods, a registered nurse at Memorial West Hospital in Pembroke Pines, her eyes tearing up.  “I hope we will be friends forever.”

Since Thelma Campbell founded Girl Power in 2000, the organization has helped many Edlines do better in school, deal with conflict and substance abuse, improve their fitness and nutrition and generally prepare for the real world.

The Sister Circle program matches adult mentors with adolescent mentees as a way to bring positive role models to young girls in Liberty City and surrounding areas.

Edline came to Girl Power after she was suspended from Miami Central High School for fighting. It wasn’t her first fight; she had a history of scuffling that went back to elementary school.  Girl Power’s after-school program provided an alternative to juvenile detention.

The eldest of four children, Edline never spent much time with her parents – they were too busy, she says – and didn’t really connect with her siblings. Fighting was just what she did until that last confrontation.

“I almost went to jail because the girl I was fighting had asthma and I didn’t know,” she recalls. “My mom heard about the mentoring program one day and, after we went to a walk-in, she signed me up.”

Woods recalls her first meeting with Edline, at Girl Power’s office on Northwest Seventh Avenue at Northwest 60th Street in 2007.

“The thing I remember most was that she had the most beautiful smile the first time I saw it,” Woods says.  “But most of the time she wouldn’t smile or pick her head up during the conversation and I didn’t understand why.”

Though Edline had no choice about joining Girl Power, she admits she thought it sounded cool.

She also explains her demeanor.

“That’s how I grew up – to walk with my head down,” she says.  “Either I was the new girl or got picked on because I was really skinny or small, so I fought my way through school.”

It took a while but Edline came to value her time with Woods, recalling how she first came to trust her. “We went to go do our hair and Ellen just kept asking about my school work, like details,” she says.  “I was like, wow, she really cares about this and about me.”

Now 18, Edline has graduated from Mavericks High School, a North Miami Beach charter school.  She applied to Miami Dade College and is scheduled to start a law enforcement program at MDC this month.

Campbell, who still heads Girl Power, says testimonials like Edline’s and Woods’ make her job worthwhile.

“I remember Edline before Ellen got her.  She wasn’t a bad child but she could be easily influenced,” Campbell says. “So, when I see a match like Ellen and Edline, it just confirms to me that what I’m doing is what I’m supposed to be doing and it’s important and it’s God’s work.”

Campbell says she realized how much Edline had changed when she saw her at a political event Woods organized with the girl’s help.

“There were a lot of people and I saw someone walking towards me that I didn’t recognize,” Campbell remembers.  “I looked closer and it was Edline.  She walked up to me and shook my hand with a smile on her face.  It was my first time seeing her in a new light because, before, you couldn’t pay Edline $100 to walk up to somebody and introduce herself.”

Edline says the most important thing she learned from Woods was to stop fighting.

“Girls used to say stuff about me or bully me and Ellen told me they’re like crabs in a bucket, that were just going to pull me down,” she says.  “She would tell me, ‘Why fight? It’s not worth it because when someone sees two dogs fighting, no one cares who started it.  They’re both dogs.’”

Woods says she learned things from Edline, as well.

“The concept of it takes a village to raise children is real and if we could save one girl at a time from the negative in the world and show them something positive, it’s worth it,” Woods says. “I’ve learned a lot from Edline. I learned that you can tap into a child’s life with positive reinforcement.”

Girl Power also helped Edline grow closer to her mother.

“Before, I never used to listen to my mom and I kept on fighting with her.  Now it’s like I realize all she wanted to do was help me,” Edline says.  “Ellen taught me because she saw things I couldn’t see because she had been there, done that.”

Edline’s mother, Edna Demajuste, a paralegal, agrees.

 “She’s way more mature,” she says.  “It’s been a long ride but I’m glad we did it.  Even though she had brothers and sisters, she was the type to always be alone.  Now she knows how to interact with people and speak in public.”

Initially reluctant to join Girl Power, Edline now encourages others to become part of the program.

 “I would tell other girls don’t judge a book by its cover too quickly,” she says.  “I just didn’t want to do it at first but you never know what could happen.”

Ana Perez may be reached at apere007@fiu.edu

Photo: Ana Perez/Liberty city link

SISTERHOOD: Girl Power’s Sister Mentor program brought together Edline Demajuste, right, with her mentor Ellen Woods. Both say the relationship changed their lives.