The first group of youth Patricia Feathers took in to teach were her hardest.
They were a group of teenage gang members who had been sent to her studio by family members to learn the finer points of life – how to sit properly, how to interact with professional adults, how to eat at a respectable dinner table.
"They can't stand right, they're doing signs to each other," she said. "It's hard for them to sit normally."
Feathers takes out photos of the boys. They're slouched in their chairs, fingers bent into gang signs they've been flashing to their friends. She said many had a "hard" look on their faces. When they sat down to eat, their table manners were sub-par.
With perfect posture and the air of a former model, Feathers serves as a role model for her students and she says the photos she takes of her new students serve as a reminder of their progress in her etiquette classes at Urban Bridges, Inc.
Feathers can identify with the difficulty that many of her students face, she says, he childhood was a broken one, rife with abuse, neglect and relatives who told her she'd never amount to anything.
"I suffered a lot of low self-esteem," she said. "I didn't know who I was."
After moving to Portland 30 years ago, Feathers attended the Gloria Lavonne School of Modeling. She learned etiquette, to love herself and the skills of a career in modeling. She says it was there that she grew an urge to help young people rise above their own circumstances to succeed.
So, nearly three years ago, Feathers opened Urban Bridges to complete this longtime goal. The nonprofit etiquette and modeling studio is aimed at underserved children who could benefit from the life techniques taught in her class.
She sees too many children growing up without proper role models, a whole generation of urban children who don't know proper posture, table manners, or the proper way to act in a professional environment.
But her classes go beyond mere etiquette, Feathers says she wants to form a positive thinking person. She also teaches modeling techniques.
"By the time the second class rolls around, I talk to them about their body image," she says.
Her facial images class teaches the boys and girls the importance of smiles, frowns, smirks and other expressions on which other people gain their impression of you.
She even talks to them about real life issues – from school problems to bullies to landing a first job. Because of hectic work schedules, many parents never pass down some of the finer points on life.
"They never learned it," she says. "I don't care what background you come from, there's a generation of children who are raw out there."
For many specialized situations, Feathers draws on a community of professionals to talk to her students. It can help reinforce the standards of dress and professional conduct, and teach the importance of a handshake, eye contact and enunciation.
Most of all, Feathers says she turns no one away based on their ability to pay. Because her studio is a nonprofit, she is able to offer classes at a discount rate, although she says she does need help from the community to keep providing her services.
Former student Zarinah Mustafa says the class redefined how she held her body and conducted herself.
"It changed the way I felt about myself," she said.
Another former student, Chiantae'yauna Yokum, says she now has more confidence and is planning for the future with more clarity.
"The things we've learned here, as far as being a lady, that will help us later in life," she said.
Picking up the photos again, Feathers looks through her before and after shots of her girls and boys. Aside from improved sitting and standing posture, the biggest difference is their faces. Many of them are giving big, beaming smiles.
"We had a girl come here 6 months ago. She came in with a really hard look," Feathers said, who admits can be a bit intimidating to some girls. "By the time I finished with her, her self-esteem was through the roof."
Visit them at http://www.urbanbridges.org or contact Patricia Feathers at 503-493-9436 or firstname.lastname@example.org