Taking the ‘LEAD’ and investing in girls for the future of the community
Looking at the results of the midterm election, where over 250 women ran for office and over 100 won seats, 2018 has indeed been what national news outlets have been calling the “Year of Women.”
To go along with this “Year of Women,” a nonprofit organization in Winston-Salem has made strides this year in its mission to help preteen and teenage girls find their voice and raise them to be leaders in their community. For three years now, executive director and founder of LEAD Girls North Carolina Joy Nelson Thomas has helped make a difference in hundreds of young girls’ lives.
“Right after college, I started raising a friend of the family’s daughter, and that really brought a different perspective to like girls and even with my own adversities,” she said. “It opened my eyes to what was going on in our community and how much girls were suffering.”
Thomas studied architecture for her undergraduate degree and started her master’s in counseling. She took a break from her master’s because she felt that LEAD would be a better use of her time.
“I took a break from counseling because I felt like I wanted to come with a different perspective working with these girls. I didn’t want to come in as that counselor-head, I wanted them to know that it is OK to be true to who you are and I didn’t want them to think that I was analyzing or judging them.”
Thomas researched the issues young girls in the community faced as well as the problem of poverty that the community faces.
“That is what drove me to found LEAD Girls,” she said. “I walked away from a career and self-funded this program for the first half of that year.”
Through grants, donors and parent participation, Thomas said the rest of the year was funded and has been for the last three years. Thomas said she, along with seven other board members, run LEAD. It was initially a Triad-based program (serving Guilford and Forsyth) that was contracted through the organization Community In Schools. Since most of the funding came from Forsyth County, Thomas said that the organization decided to focus on that county exclusively. LEAD serves middle school (grades 6-8) girls; however, Thomas said many girls like to stay and volunteer throughout high school.
LEAD stands for Learning Everyday Accomplishing Dreams, and the LEAD Girls have four fundamentals: leadership, self-awareness, communication, and perspective. Thomas said LEAD typically focuses on Title I schools with at-risk girls. (Thomas said at-risk is broadly defined as mental disabilities, low socioeconomic statuses, or disciplinary actions.)
Thomas said LEAD works from an evidence-based curriculum, which means researchers on the board analyzes each LEAD action and direction.
“Everything we do, from pre to post, we have researchers on our board of directors, and we are watching the girls and at-risk behaviors,” she said. “We are watching their communication style, their passion or purpose within their community, connecting to the community, peer-on-peer, and how they work with others.”
Thomas said that in the program now, there are 300 girls and it is typically about 100 girls per year. There are two programs, one based at the schools and one based in the community and held at LEAD’s downtown office on Saturdays.
“When each girl comes in we really try to work with them to figure out what exactly are some of the situations that they are facing,” she said. “Most schools will help identify that focus. For schools that focus on disciplinary actions (such as fights and drama), LEAD will focus in on how to handle conflict, how to communicate, and how to handle talking with authoritative figures.”
Thomas said that the main focus of the program is to promote leadership development and self-awareness. Two other programs within LEAD offer the girls a chance to apply what they are learning. Thomas said there is the agricultural entrepreneurship program and the fashion entrepreneurship program. Thomas said the agricultural entrepreneurship program was made possible by a grant from BB&T and by visiting associate professor at Wake Forest University Megan Regan, Ph.D. (Regan is chair of LEAD’s grants committee and head of the “Come Grow With Us” agricultural entrepreneurship program.)
Regan said she got involved with LEAD in 2016 and found out about it through a colleague, who was on the board at the time.
“I was looking for something consistent with my values that also I thought could benefit from my skill set,” she said
Being the head of the Come Grow With Us program, Regan trains girls to become urban farmers and teaches entrepreneurship through agriculture.
“Entrepreneurship, small businesses, create jobs and money-multiplier impact in the community,” she said. “But survival entrepreneurship in the community gives people business skills and also allows them to hedge against poor market conditions.”
She said by growing their own produce, girls are also combating another problem Winston-Salem’s impoverished community is facing, food deserts. With fresh produce not being readily available for some families, growing their own produce can be beneficial economically and healthier overall.
The other program is the fashion entrepreneurship program, which partners with Goodwill, Truliant Federal Credit Union and Winston-Salem Fashion Week. Thomas said this program was built so girls can express themselves through clothes and be who they are on a second-hand shop budget. Thomas said the program also encourages creativity. She said the girls get to recreate garments into something they want to wear and inspires the girls to “be their own brand.”
“We have a city of innovation and a city of poverty right next door to each other essentially,” Thomas said. “What does that look like for our girls? That is where entrepreneurship came in. I believe that people can turn their purpose into a profit or their passion into a profit, especially since young girls are so creative.”
Thomas said Forsyth County was just quoted by a Harvard study as the third worst county in the country for socioeconomic mobility (meaning people who were born in poverty have a hard time getting out of poverty). Regan said LEAD aligns with her values of reaching out to underserved and income-constrained families to “meet girls where they are at.” She also values investing in young girls because, through her studies, she has found that it is beneficial to the community and economy as a whole.
“Also as an economist that studies poverty, there are certain gendered aspects to poverty, in that when you provide greater opportunities to women you tend to have more benefits at the household level, in terms of lifting them out of poverty and improving the well-being of everyone in the household, compared to investing in a male,” she said. “The marginal values of investing in a girl has quite a many community multiplier benefits.”
As an economist who studies poverty on a micro level, Regan said Winston-Salem is an area “that has very difficult poverty realities.” She said Forsyth County is among the “top five counties in the nation with intergenerational poverty,” which means those born in poverty will likely pass it to the next generation. She also said Winston-Salem has “very extreme concentrated poverty,” which means poverty is not evenly dispersed but rather resides in “specific census tracts.” Regan said that LEAD has the mission, vision, and curriculum designed to reach those with the least resources and access to improve the community overall.
“If you are investing in a girl, you are investing in the community,” she said. “I think on average the income or wealth distribution in our economy is not as efficient as it could be.”
Tracy Gaffney, a mother of a LEAD girl, believes in the LEAD Girls program and its influence on her daughter, Dasia. Gaffney said she signed Dasia up three years ago because she felt her daughter was immature and lacked direction.
“When I signed her up for the program I really didn’t know exactly what was going to come of her,” she said. “But I needed her to get some type of leadership skills, maturity, and skills she can use now and take with her through her life. So that is what LEAD has done for her.”
Gaffney said since her daughter has been involved with LEAD she is more responsible at home and school. She said the program made Dasia into a volunteer and someone who is enthusiastic about the program and school. Gaffney said Dasia is committed to the LEAD Girls program and it has shaped her into someone who is “mature in her thinking, responsibility, and commitment.” Gaffney said that she wanted Dasia to have more role models and through the LEAD Girls program, she has been introduced to many female entrepreneurs that she would not have known about otherwise.
“Her teachers commend her and tell her that she shows good leadership skills and they don’t even know that she is in the LEAD Girls program,” Gaffney said. “That right there is what I like about LEAD Girls, is what it is doing for her. It is transforming Dasia into the leader that I know she has in her.”
Gaffney said the LEAD Girls program is vital to the community because it is curriculum-based and teaches girls life skills. She is grateful for the program and said she tries to support it as much as her schedule allows.
“I am just really thankful and appreciative of the activities, the exposure and all the things that the LEAD Girls offer to my daughter,” she said. “Even I have recruited other kids to go to LEAD. I am grateful for a program out there for girls to help them to grow and know their potential is not limited to their household, their neighborhood; their potential goes way past any boundaries, borders and obstacles.”
Former volunteer and committee member Kenya Harley said in a phone interview that the LEAD girls program aligned with her views and passion for being active in the community. Harley was a committee member and volunteer for a little over two years. She found out about the program from meeting Thomas at a Winston-Salem young professionals group. (She has since moved to another state for a job opportunity.)
“We hit it off, it sounded like something I would be interested in, and it is important for me personally to be involved in the community,” she said of her meeting with Thomas.
While Harley was a volunteer, she helped facilitate Saturday classes and lessons. She recalled one lesson she taught to the girls, which was a lesson on stereotypes. She was able to have an open and honest discussion with the girls and share her experiences with them.
“In going to those events and the LEAD Girls coming, I was able to get to know the girls and it kind of solidified the reason why I did what I did with LEAD,” she said. “To be able to talk to the girls and have candid, open conversations, and for the girls to be able to tell me and express to me that LEAD has been very instrumental to them developing goals.”
She said seeing the girls grow up in a “different and more positive light,” build up their self-esteem and do better in school was encouraging to her. She said that reminded her why LEAD is necessary for girls in the community. The most rewarding experience of Harley’s time with the program, she said, was when LEAD hosted an open house and informational session. She said she met a woman whose children were older and out of the house. Harley said she asked the woman what brought her to the open house. The woman told her that she had a friend with two daughters that she believed would benefit from the program.
“It was kind of interesting that she somehow crossed paths with these young ladies who are in high school now. She realized that they needed something else in their life,” Harley said. ”It was inspiring to see a lady from the community invest in people who are not her children or grandchildren. She saw a need that they had, and she tried to meet it. Even though she felt like she couldn’t fully meet the need, she is hoping to give them a resource to help them meet the need. That was just encouragement to me that LEAD exists for a reason.”
Thomas said LEAD is always looking for board members, volunteers, and sponsors. Though the program’s Third Anniversary Soirée and fundraising event on Dec. 9 has sold out of its 220 tickets, Thomas said there are other ways people can support LEAD.
“They can sponsor a girl…they can sponsor the snacks; there are many ways to get involved,” she said.
Thomas said that Giving Tuesday is also coming up after Thanksgiving, and for people to consider giving to the LEAD Girls of NC nonprofit. Thomas encourages the community to take charge, get involved and take care of each other.
“Be the driver of change you want to see in your community. It takes all of us coming together to do that.”
Thomas said that LEAD is in full capacity, even though there are 200 plus people on the waiting list, and there is no way to expand it financially at the moment. Thomas said the fundraising efforts from the Soirée would go toward funding a part-time employee for LEAD to help out with the girls, train volunteers, and go toward starting a high school program so that girls who want to stay, can.
“When you see movements like #MeToo and the recent election, if you raise strong leaders, people comfortable and confident to say ‘no, I don’t believe in that, I don’t want to do that, I don’t believe in that,’ I don’t think we would have as much adversities or challenges that we face,” she said. “The recent election has been a real ‘a-ha, that is why we need LEAD’ moment. When you see women that are getting into office, and it is history cause of their ethnicity, we have to stick together. We should be each other’s support team. I think women, we will run the world and we can run the world if we stick together.”
For more information about LEAD and to get involved visit the website.
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.