The Mentorship Program

Twelve teenage girls get the chance of a lifetime

An in-depth look at the mentees
Complete Women in Entertainment coverage

Tanisha Forest is studying Manifest Destiny.

Sitting in a classroom at Crenshaw High School, mere miles from several Hollywood studios but a world away in south Los Angeles, this wisp of a 17-year-old with a bright smile and dangling silver earrings peers at a map of 19th century America.

It is a slightly shabby room with loads of empty desks, as if the student body has fled -- which, in a sense, it has: About three years ago, an exodus occurred among the more affluent kids when Crenshaw lost its accreditation (it has since been regained). Many of the remaining students come from broken homes or have an incarcerated parent. Trouble is rampant; the area is ruled by a violent gang known as the Rolling 60s, and on this day, more than 100 late students form a line outside the building, waiting to be frisked by security guards.

But not Tanisha. Shy and reserved, she stares intently at the map as a teacher discusses America's belief in itself.

Belief in herself has not played a great role in Tanisha's life. Growing up, her family was so poor they moved from motel to motel. As her homes changed, so did her schools -- she can't even remember how many she's attended. When her parents divorced, her grades went into free fall.

"It was so hard," she says. "Where do you live? Who are you? Where do you belong? There is a lot of teasing. And sometimes an older girl will see you as a threat and just hate on you. I was always thinking, 'What do you do to break in?' "

Tanisha may have found the answer. Thanks to her strong grades, a compelling personal essay and a commitment to her work, she has been selected as one of 12 girls from inner-city high schools taking part in the inaugural Hollywood Reporter/Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program. She joins other students from Crenshaw, Theodore Roosevelt High School and Santee Education Complex who will spend one afternoon every two weeks working and learning in the offices of some of the most prominent women in the industry.

The bonds that unite the girls are evident when you to speak with them. Each has an ability to rise above adversity, to excel in an environment that crushes many of her classmates, and to fight against self-doubt.

The mentors have been as carefully chosen as the girls. All 12 have agreed to work with their mentees for a year and possibly longer.

"I see it as my responsibility to help guide a girl whose life I can really change," says Andrea Wong, president and CEO of Lifetime Networks and another mentor. "I met my mentee, Jasmine, last week. She has a great head on her shoulders, she is dying to learn and I am eager to teach her everything I can."

"I view my relationship with my mentee, Sonia Ortega Gonzalez, as not just 12 months of mentoring, but rather a commitment to starting a career," adds Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of "Entertainment Tonight." "I want to guide her and perhaps hire her when she is ready. It is one thing to have a mentor; it is quite another to help someone get a job." Sonia, the oldest of five kids with a stay-home mom and a dad who works in demolition, has a 3.7 GPA. A free spirit with blue hair, she seems destined for a creative career but wants Bell Blue to help her focus on which path to take.

She has several ideas, she says, "from something in Hollywood to an electrician -- and when I say that most people laugh out loud. But I think Linda understands and likes that I have so many interests."

We're at a photo shoot at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.

Maira Solis, a 16-year-old at Roosevelt High School, is sitting in a makeup chair being lavished with attention. She takes it all in her stride.

"Wow," she quips. "You'd get a little spoiled if they did this every day, wouldn't you?"

Small, spunky and determined, Maira is up at 6 every morning, getting ready to begin school an hour later, after which she'll be locked in a range of activities -- everything from volleyball to violin. With homework each night, she often doesn't get to bed until midnight.

Maintaining a 3.8 GPA has been a struggle. She grew up with two brothers and a sister, her father selling tacos at a taco stand while her mother worked at Wiener Schnitzel.

"I wasn't confident about myself when I was young," she acknowledges, "but I knew I was going to get somewhere in life, because I'm smart!"

She had to rely on her smarts when her mother moved out to be with her boyfriend, taking Maira's sister with her. "I was living with my dad and my two brothers. I felt a lot of resentment. I was like, 'Wow, she left us for that guy and she took my sister with her too.' It was a pretty big blow."

Maira's mother won a custody battle. But when the teenager moved in, strains developed between Maira and her mom's boyfriend and eventually her mother sent Maira to live with her dad. "I was happy," she says, "because I could be with my brothers."

Maira's happiness proved short-lived. Four months later, the family was evicted.

"I have no idea how it happened," she sighs, "but I guess (it was) because my mom was the person that took care of the bills. She would always get everything in on time -- like the rent -- and my father wasn't like that."

Just getting to school was difficult, especially before a recent move. "It is dangerous," she says. "Sometimes there are shots. You know, where I used to live, there was an incident and a taxi driver was killed. There was blood all over the floor. It was pretty scary."

That was the low point in her life, but Maira has rebounded. She's living in a safer place, has joined the school mariachi band and plays classical as well as mariachi music. Next year she will apply to colleges with a good music program, like USC and NYU.

These days, she divides her time between her father and her mother. "I have to go from one house to another, and am constantly moving," she says. "The problem I deal with is time management. It's a little difficult, but it's OK."

Whatever she has been through, she says, "I just tried to put the pain to the side. I let my problems stay at home. I didn't bring them to school."

All that matters is what's coming next. She knows what she wants -- to work in music as a composer, arranger, performer or teacher. Her mentor is William Morris Entertainment talent agent Nancy Josephson.

"I hope the mentorship program will motivate me to go the distance and not settle for something low," she says. "Dream big and hopefully it will come true."

Nayeli Henriquez, 16, has been dreaming big for a long time.

Sitting crammed in the corner of a school bus just outside Santee Education Complex, the shy teenager keeps to herself. But when she starts to talk, she opens up.

She dreams of the day when she can help others -- either people, by becoming a social worker, or animals, by working for a shelter. With her strong science grades (she's in AP environmental science), she hopes she'll eventually go to Harvard or Princeton.

But as the eldest of five kids, she has big responsibilities at home. She's already caring for others in her large family, which includes 11 aunts and uncles "just from my mom's family," she says. Nayeli looks after everyone because her mother has been dealing with medical problems.

"She used to work in a farm factory, where they make meat and she cut it up to send it to stores, kind of like a butcher," Nayeli notes. "But because she has been getting surgeries, right now she can't work. She has had three surgeries this year already -- she was born with a thing that was open (a hairlip) and sometimes she has trouble eating and stuff like that."

One can sense the burden that has created for her, and she acknowledges she has had to miss some school because of it.

"I've taken over as the mom," she says, noting that she cleans and cooks two meals: One for the family, one for her mother. "It's hard work, but I think it's good at the same time. It'll help me when I grow up and have kids."

Despite everything, she has a positive attitude and is looking forward to being mentored by Leslie Siebert, senior managing partner at Gersh.

When asked what she would tell a girl her age about how to get through tough times, she says: "Somebody else's life is always worse than yours, so talk to your friends. And hold on. It will always get better."

Joanna Cabrera, 16, is finding the better part of life is here and now. A born leader with an outgoing, confident personality, she serves as president of Santee's student council.

"I am in the Young Senators program also," she says. "I work at St. Vincent's Meals on Wheels. I have an internship at A Place Called Home," where kids can hang out after school. She's also on the debate team and has a 3.9 GPA.

Unlike many girls in her school, Joanna comes from a stable home with two hardworking parents, which has clearly had an impact on her.

"My mom works at night cleaning a restaurant called ESPN at L.A. Live," she says. "And my dad, he works in a glass factory: He drives to places where he installs glass windows."

She has two brothers, an older and a younger one, and a stepsister in Mexico. She has always been a good student. "My parents have told me I should never settle for less and I should always try to be the best I can," she says.

Her biggest stumbling blocks in school have to do with unruly behavior in the classroom.

"Sometimes the class is very disruptive," she says. "I currently have an English class where the teacher can't control the kids. So it really disrupts the way I learn. They shout, they don't really have respect for the teacher. They go to school just to hang out."

Not Joanna. She wants to get into a top university -- Harvard, Stanford or USC. After that, she wants to be a lawyer, which is why THR's mentorship program has paired her with entertainment attorney Melanie Cook.

"I met with my mentor," she says. "My parents and I went to her office. She explained the rules and what I would be doing with her. And she did it all in Spanish, which was really cool!"

Back at Crenshaw, Tanisha's class is coming to an end.

Teachers are maintaining a valiant effort to keep their students engaged and a new principal is surging forward with a host of positive changes, but this is a tough environment for a student who wants to go further.

Tanisha glances at her classmates as they leave the room. She's still getting to know many of them -- not surprising, given that this is her fifth or sixth school.

"My parents divorced when I was in eighth grade," she explains. "It was hard on me and my grades did go down. But my mom kept telling me, 'Just stay focused. This is all going to work out.' "

It did, given her grade point average. But the memories of her recent past linger with her.

"The worst part was going from house to house," she says. Even when her parents were together, Tanisha's family went from hotel to hotel and lived with both of her grandmas.

"They were working but they just didn't have enough money to get a house," she says. "And, like, you are going to one school and then a lot of schools. I have been to schools in Lawndale, Compton, Inglewood and Crenshaw."

A Christian school brought her comfort and stability but "My parents did not have enough money to keep me in that school, so I went to middle school in Inglewood, and then transferred to Crenshaw."

She stops to reflect. At 17, with her clean-cut manner and good work ethic, Tanisha is both an anomaly and an inspiration in a school where the dropout rate is 39%. But if that weighs on her, she doesn't show it.

Leaving the class and walking through the wide halls with their worn yellow paint, she seems to deliberately shut out her surroundings, an attitude that has kept her away from temptation and violence.

"There are fights once in a while," she notes, "but I have never gotten into one. I don't feel like the environment could hurt me because I don't spend my time out there. I just go to school. I try to stay to myself and (be with) people that are like me."

She dreams of being a writer and wants to go to a top university -- Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton or USC. Her parents are encouraging her, especially her mother.

A smile lights up her face when she talks about her. "My mom is a very positive person," she says. "She is very strong and loving and caring."

Tanisha will need as much love and care as she can get if she's to succeed in reaching her dream. And that's something her mentor plans on giving.

"I identify with the desire to see a bigger world," says Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America. "I understand what it means to come to here, to the world of Hollywood, from her neighborhood. It just seems so far away. I arrived in Paris from Lyon, and it was a big culture shock. But I wanted bigger horizons -- and so does Tanisha. She is serious and conscientious and, unlike a lot of kids her age, she is focused on school and her writing. I can completely relate to her, and can't wait to open up possibilities and have her meet new people."

That's just what Tanisha wants to hear.

"My parents say, if I put my mind to it I can do a lot of things -- they know I have potential," she smiles. "They know I am a very determined person."