Charlisa Payton had left Baltimore only a few times in her 14 years.
But a few days ago, the Girl Scout from West Baltimore found herself in a place she had hardly imagined: the nation's capital, sleeping and dining in a four-star hotel and testifying before members of Congress about the importance of after-school programs.
"It was, like, a special day," she said, smiling and fiddling with the sunshine yellow neck scarf, part of her blue, white and yellow Girl Scout uniform.
"I talked about how the Girl Scouts kind of showed me a new attitude," she said. "They changed me."
In her testimony, the smooth-faced ninth-grader told a hard, honest tale: She is the mother of a 13-month-old baby boy. Drugs and shootings are common in her neighborhood. She knows little about her father, who is in jail.
So, she spends much of her spare time at the Hollins-Payson branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library with leaders and fellow Scouts of her troop, one of three city chapters -- another is in East Baltimore, and Fells Point has a bilingual troop -- that serve about 200 girls in Baltimore.
"This center has helped me stay off the streets with the drug dealers," she testified. "That's where I was before I became a Girl Scout."
Payton and her fellow Scouts wanted members of Congress to know that the center provides essential after-school care in areas where it is often lacking.
Pitch for prevention
On Thursday, 12 of the 80 Hollins Payson Girl Scouts participated in a forum called "An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure." Sponsored by Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, it was an information-gathering session on youth issues to support pending juvenile justice legislation.
Payton and a few other girls had traveled by train -- their first ride -- the day before and stayed in the posh Hay-Adams Hotel courtesy of the Girl Scouts of America.
Youths from the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs and other groups testified. But Payton's testimony came first and, her troop leaders say, was the most effective. She talked about self-esteem, teaching younger girls and getting help from her leaders.
"Sometimes," she said, "the only ones who remember our birthdays are our sisters and leaders at
Payton's day in the spotlight came at a time when the Girl Scouts' role is changing in many urban areas. The organization's leaders have gone from offering girls camping trips, arts and crafts and lessons on integrity to frank discussions about boys, sex and violence. The Girl Scouts help guide girls like Payton through some of the biggest potential pitfalls of urban adolescence.
"It's not the Girl Scouts you and I knew way back when," said Louise White of the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. "It's a whole lot more."
Funding comes through corporate sponsors -- this year, Bell Atlantic. The centers, which are free and largely staffed by volunteers, provide each Girl Scout, Brownie and Daisy -- girls as young as 5 years old -- with a membership pin and often a necktie or vest. Most girls don't have full uniforms because of a lack of funding. But there are plenty of opportunities.
Payton earned her chance to address the country's leaders by winning an essay contest this fall arranged by their site coordinator, Leanda High, who asked the girls to write about what the Girl Scouts meant to them.
Though she was nervous during the testimony -- "That room was just big and full of people," she said -- Payton was eloquent and poised.
It showed how far she has come during the last year, her mother, Philisa Franklin, said.
"Oh, she has changed so much," Franklin said. While she always
made the honor roll, "She was bad. Withdrawn into herself. She had a bad attitude."
Payton admits as much. "I was disrespecting adults," she said in an interview Friday. She was 12 when her son, Tywan, was born. She hung around the neighborhood and was spending time with girls in a local gang when her cousin told her how much fun she was having as a Girl Scout.
Payton was curious. She liked the field trips, computers in the center and friendship of the other girls (she has three brothers). But, right away, High and her colleagues made it clear that Payton's bad attitude would not be tolerated.
"The first time, I didn't really listen," she said. "They would sit me down and talk to me every time I came in. They told me, 'Why would you disrespect someone if you don't want to be disrespected?'
"It was something better than being outside," she said. Looking at the floor, she added, "I could have gotten shot being there."
A new beginning
Now, Payton is flourishing: She has just started high school at Walbrook High, is enjoying her science and math classes and looks forward to college "somewhere in Baltimore," she said.
She is also proud of Tywan, a serene child who is raised with help from Franklin and other relatives.
"I can't do nothing about Tywan now -- he's here -- except love him and take care of him," she said. "Sometimes you have a past, but you can put it behind you, and you can start over again."