This May, Jackie Fickes ’14 started her summer internship at Project Return, a group home for troubled young women in Westport, Conn., two weeks before the newest resident moved in.
Though the new intern and the new resident were from vastly different backgrounds — one is a rising junior at an elite liberal arts college, the other a traumatized and deprived teenager with nowhere to go — their differences evaporated quickly.
One afternoon, after the girl had returned to the home from school, she erupted into an emotional maelstrom. “She was saying she didn’t want to be here…she didn’t feel at home, that she felt really alone,” Fickes recalled, “understandably like she didn’t quite have a home base in the world yet.”
None of the other residents or staff members could console her — except Fickes. “That afternoon she would not leave my side,” Fickes remembered. “She was only responding to me. She was sitting on the couch, crying into my shoulder. I’m not sure what it was about that day that made her cling so tightly to me, and as good as it felt to comfort her it was also very humbling and very heartbreaking.”
After learning about Project Return from a family friend on the board, Fickes applied for a funded internship through Bowdoin Career Planning to work there this summer. She won a grant from the Preston Public Interest Career Fund, which supports students interning at organizations serving disadvantaged populations. Bowdoin’s funded internship program is donor supported and allows students to pursue otherwise unpaid internships to explore potential career paths.
Fickes said she was drawn to Project Return because she is interested in pursuing a social services career. “I know this sounds cliché, but I have always wanted to do a helping type of profession,” she said, adding, “and I am an advocate for women.” At Bowdoin, Fickes works at the Women’s Resource Center.
Fickes also has a special sympathy for teenagers. “It is hard growing up as a teenage girl,” she said. “A lot of people don’t give credit for how tumultuous it is and how much you question yourself, and that is before you throw in experiences no 15 or 16-year-old girl should have…I had a hard enough time being a teenage girl with a supportive family and all the opportunities in the world.”
Project Return’s philosophy is to provide a safe, family-like environment where no more than seven young women, between 14 and 21 years old, can live and build healthy relationships. “The emphasis is on healing and having them be in a healing environment. Some girls stay a few months. They had a girl who lived there for five years,” Fickes explained. “It’s given me a lot of insight into the kinds of things that do heal people with a lot of trauma.” All the residents are required to do chores and attend school, with the goal of having them move back in with their families or go to college and live on their own.
As an intern, Fickes does some administrative tasks but mostly spends time with the girls, taking them on walks or drives, helping them with homework and listening to them.
Fickes said she can see the changes underway in some of the girls, who’ve likely been considered “problem children” for many years. “Initially you might meet them and be taken aback by their tough exteriors and defensive behaviors. But when you spend some time with them, you see beyond these little acts, and you see how sweet and smart and caring they are.”
As for the new girl, Fickes said she has observed some of her defenses beginning to dissolve. “I’m seeing her get more involved in the group,” Fickes said. “She had one of the girls cut and straighten her hair. It could have been a fiasco, but it wasn’t…and she’s started watching Teen Wolf marathons with [the others]. And she’s pursuing things — she wants to take guitar lessons this summer.”