Helping girls find their voices and their power to build confidence, make good decisions and grow to be successful women is what drives Joy Nelson-Thomas, the founder and executive director of Learning Everyday Accomplishing Dreams (LEAD) Girls of NC. Now in its second year of operations, LEAD Girls of NC is a one-of-a-kind nonprofit that has provided leadership development to over 300 local girls ages 11 to15.
“Right now, our programs serve 160 girls each year. We hope to double our reach and expand our program to at least 300 girls each year within the next two years,” says Joy. “With so many local girls facing bullying, increased social and peer pressure, struggles with difficult home lives, and challenges at school, there is an incredible need for LEAD—and we have a tremendous desire to help every girl who needs us.”
CREATING SELF-LEADERS FIRST
Dedication to developing girls’ leadership skills as the gateway to helping them find their voices and coax out confidence, self-reliance, and independence makes LEAD Girls of NC a unique program for girls. It all starts with helping girls better understand themselves and learn to communicate openly and honestly.
“My purpose when I started LEAD Girls was to equip girls to flourish and thrive. That’s still what motivates me and what drives our programming,” says Joy. “When you teach listening skills and respectful dialogue, and you show that defying peer pressure and trusting your decision making are choices you can make, what you’re teaching girls is how to be leaders, starting with leading their own lives. It’s powerful and empowering for middle school girls to develop and nurture these skills.”
LEAD Girls’ leadership program meets bi-weekly in one-hour workshops for eight weeks. Weekday sessions are hosted at two local middle schools twice per year, in the fall and spring. A community-based workshop series, open to girls from any local school, is offered on weekends at LEAD’s program space in downtown Winston-Salem. Workshops use an evidence-based curriculum that facilitates discussion, guides introspection, challenges thinking and inspires girls’ creativity, in a framework that is scientifically tested and proven effective for changing behaviors and developing leadership skills. “If that doesn’t sound like fun,” laughs Joy, “You’re wrong! It really is fun for the girls. We are thrilled to have over 95% of our participants report that the program is fun and engaging, and they don’t want it to end after eight weeks.”
LUCK IS NOT ENOUGH TO OVERCOME ADVERSITY
Is it simply luck that determines which preteen girls thrive and which girls never seem to get ahead because of countless challenges? That’s the question Joy asked herself when she started LEAD Girls, and it’s one she poses to the organization’s partners, supporters, and volunteers. She knows from firsthand experience it’s not luck. As a first-generation American and victim of bullying, Joy has faced—and overcome—adversity in its many forms, thanks to a strong support network.
“It’s so important to create a support system for girls in the Forsyth community. Our program equips girls to achieve greatness academically, emotionally and creatively—which is great, but we also need to be their proverbial village and raise strong girls together as a community.”
Forsyth county girls could really use a ‘village,’ Joy believes. Her research uncovered alarming statistics about our community and the struggles local girls often face as they experience poverty in childhood and into adulthood. Without another path to choose, many girls seemed destined for poverty and a lifetime of unfulfilled dreams. The Winston-Salem metropolitan area ranks second in the nation for experiencing the greatest increase of suburban poor people living in concentrated poverty areas. Children who grow up in poverty-stricken neighborhoods are much more likely to be in poverty as adults. In Forsyth County, 27.5% of children between 5 and 17 are in poverty (exceeding the state average of 21.5% and the national average of 19.5%).
While the perils of youth poverty are well-documented—including poor academic achievement and higher school dropout rates—so, too, are the successes leadership development can produce. Engaging girls in leadership development as they are maturing into young women is proven to improve schooling outcomes, help girls to avoid risky behaviors, and empower them to chart a different course for their futures.
“LEAD Girls hopes to transform girls’ lives,” says Joy. “We give them the foundation they need to recognize their worth, cultivate and trust their decision-making abilities, and find their voices to counter bullying and challenge peer pressure. When even one girl recognizes her worth and sets her sights on achieving her dreams, we’ve made a tremendous difference.”