By Christina Kelso Fri, May 3, 2013 @ 6:01 pm | updated Tue, May 7, 2013 @ 8:38 am
Great grades? Hard work? Long hours? That’s nothing to Chelsea Swilley. It’s her life.
The Jacksonville native was valedictorian of First Coast High School. As a freshman, she earned the Jacksonville University Presidential Scholarship, which pays full tuition for four years. Swilley finished in three and graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology on Saturday.
She has been president of Baptist Collegiate Ministries, member of the Psi Chi Honor Society and works 20 to 30 hours a week as a cashier at Charming Charlie’s accessories store in the River City Marketplace.
That’s a full life. But she still has time to devote an incredible amount of time helping girls who have captured her heart.
To the seven young girls at Duval County’s North Shore Elementary School who await her arrival once a week, Swilley is a bastion of solace — a confidante and a friend.
Swilley is an intern for the community program “Girl Matters: It’s Elementary!”, a division of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center. She works with girls in grades K-5 whose circumstances put them at risk for suspensions, expulsions and involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Besides her schoolwork, her job and her other involvements, she will have put in an incredible amount of hours by the time her internship ends in June — 540 for 12 credit hours since she started just last August — helping the girls make progress in their young lives.
“I fell in love with its mission, its values and everything it stood for,” Swilley said. “It perfectly aligned with what I want to do with my life.”
That includes going into seminary for her master’s degree and eventually working as a counselor for teenage girls in a ministry setting.
“She’s a bright, wonderful, joyful, thoughtful young woman, and I would love to clone her and keep her forever,” said Bonnie Rose, project director for Girl Matters.
Counseling, particularly in the areas that “break your heart and stir passion,” became an obvious choice for Swilley when her 12th-grade Sunday school teacher suggested she look at the roles she had taken on naturally throughout life, she said.
“I realized then that I had always been the advice-giver in my friendships, and that it frustrated me when I saw smart girls make poor choices.
Blurring the roles of student and teacher, Swilley spends about an hour talking with and counseling each girl. Together they work on lesson plans based on the five core building blocks of Girl Matters — safety, identity, communication, emotions and relationships — and tailored to issues in the girls’ own lives, whether with peers, home life or academics.
“It’s not an internship where you’re sitting and piling up paperwork for somebody,” Swilley said. “It’s an internship where they are giving you the chance to actually make a difference and use what you’re learning and impact someone’s life forever.”
That personal contact is a big draw for Swilley, who gets to see tangible results for her efforts. Her favorite “breakthrough” story is with one of the first girls she mentored in the program. During a goal-setting session, the girl, who had been a behavior problem, became curious about college. Before long, she said her plan was to “remember everything I learned in Girl Matters.”
“That was the moment I knew she got it. That was when I knew she realized how crucial the silly games and role-playing lessons were to her future. That’s when I knew that the words I might have said motivated her to become an ‘amazing girl’ … and that I do indeed have the potential to change a little girl’s life.”
Swilley said she checks up on the girl periodically, and she has stayed committed to her goals. No longer is she a behavior issue, and she now uses words of respect with her teachers and peers.
“She’ll whisper ‘Ms. Chelsea’ when we pass in the halls and give me a big ol’ hug and a thumbs-up to signal she remembers and that she’s keeping it all in mind,” Swilley said. “She is awesome proof of the difference the Girl Matters project is making in these schools.”
The Girl Matters project launched in fall 2010 with six interns working at two schools: North Shore Elementary and George Washington Carver Elementary. The project expanded to include 16 interns and may be replicated throughout the Duval County school system.
“I’m amazed at the caliber of interns that this project has brought in,” Rose said. “It’s almost been a calling; once the young women learn about the project, they react to it from the heart.”
Swilley wrote a final report on her experience that was later incorporated into the project’s official six-month report to its grant funder, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“I was able to take what I learned in the textbook and use it and practice it,” Swilley said, “and I feel like I am better equipped to become a counselor one day because of it.
Her next step begins Aug. 13, when she’ll leave to attend the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Cordova, Tenn., outside of Memphis, to earn her Master’s of Christian Education in Women’s Studies, a three-year program.
“You just love on these girls and take care of them,” Swilley said. “Their stories break your heart, but you know that they are really getting something out of what you have to tell them.”