Soho goes full steam ahead

Imagine a year filled with fun arts and crafts, yummy food, community service, and individual support from a friendly mentor, all culminating in—drumroll please—a room makeover to create a new space just for you in your very own home!

A Space of Her Own (SOHO) offers all of this to at-risk pre-teen girls in Northern Virginia. A Space of His Own, for boys, is also offered at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School.

“I’m happy to work here every day,” saidLily Rowney, VISTA Mentor Program coordinator.

A SOHO mentor and student work together/  Photo source:

A SOHO mentor and student work together/Photo source:

SOHO provides mentorship and skills-building to at-risk girls and boys in grades five through seven. It began in 2002 as a partnership between Alexandria’s Juvenile Court Service Unit and the Art League as a way to counter rising youth crime rates.

What started as an intervention program, diverting preteen girls who had started getting into trouble, has since become a means of prevention, engaging 48 youth per year before they start going down the wrong path. Since its inception, the organization has served 212 students with a 98 percent success rate, meaning the students have not been become involved in the court system.

A SOHO student and mentor work on a lamp/  Photo source:

A SOHO student and mentor work on a lamp/Photo source:

Starting in the fall, students meet weekly with SOHO counselors and mentors for life skills classes that teach conflict resolution, anger management, healthy eating, and strategies for confronting bullying and peer pressure.

After a free, nutritious meal, students and mentors work together on a craft project such as making rugs or wiring lamps—practical things in preparation for creating their own spaces at home. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) participants have made large pieces such as dressers, chests and even bunk beds. Community service projects are also woven into the school year, giving kids a link to their communities through work at retirement communities, animal shelters or community clean-up events.


SOHO Mentors, said Rowney, undergo three 2.5-hour training sessions. To date, SOHO has screened and trained more two hundred mentors. The current class is a diverse group of professionals, most of whom have advanced degrees.

Because the majority of program participants are African-American, Hispanic or from immigrant households, training includes cultural sensitivity components as well. Rowney described a recent instance in which a participant’s family spoke only Spanish, whereas the mentor did not speak any. Neither party let that stop them, and through the course of the year, they used broken English and Spanish to push through the language barrier for the benefit of the student.

The program provides the students not only with meals, supportive mentors, life skills and a creative outlet, but also a very tangible aid for their academic success: A space of their own with adequate room and lighting for their studies. Many SOHO participants are living in overcrowded environments with their families.

In the spring, students and mentors renovate a space in the students’ homes in partnership with SOHO’ssponsors.

If you’re feeling inspired, it’s not too late in the year to get involved. SOHO is still accepting new volunteers, and will have trainings in January and February. In addition, SOHO will be one of the featured organizations at A Night of Firsts, organized by the Alexandria Mentoring Partnership. The program on January 20 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at the Charles E Beatley Central Library will feature mentors and mentees telling their mentoring stories.

Tara Campbell is a D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi, dreaming up new stories in a space of her own.