During her seven years as a Ladies of Leadership (LOL) mentor, Caharina McNeill has listened to the stories of many girls. Among them: a girl in foster care who desperately wanted to reunite with her biological mother and siblings; a girl trying to cope with the suicide of her brother’s grade-school-age friend; a girl who lost her father to gun violence.
The stories sometimes emerge in weekly small-group sessions led by McNeill and three dozen other LOL volunteer mentors. About 200 girls, ages 7 to 18, meet at locations in Lincoln Heights and Avondale. Grouped by grade level, they discuss topics such as physical and mental health, academic achievement, social-emotional skills, financial stability and overcoming trauma. Like the professional women who are their mentors, almost all the girls are Black. Nearly two-thirds of the girls live in poverty.
Mentors also gather monthly with the girls — or at least they did before the pandemic — for community service and social outings designed to develop awareness of local cultural opportunities and emphasize the importance of giving back.
Trained and vetted mentors are the backbone of LOL, which CEO Kimberly Huckleby founded in 2007 to boost girls’ confidence and develop their sense of worth. The ultimate goal, she says, is to help them achieve academic, social, and economic success. The mentorship program last year received a $25,000 grant from United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s Black Empowerment Works, which invests in Black-led programs that address poverty.
To help girls reach their potential, the mentors first must earn their trust. For McNeill, who works primarily with high school-age girls, the keys are showing up, being consistent and demonstrating that she cares.
“The (girls) are used to being let down, they’re used to people walking away, they’re used to dad leaving, they’re used to mom working all the time,” McNeill says. “In the back of their minds, they want to know, why are you here? Why do you care? Why are you taking time away from your family to spend time with me?”
McNeill, 41, shares with the girls her story of growing up poor. She was raised by a single mother of five who also took in foster kids and struggled mightily to handle it all. Her mother lacked a strong support system, and McNeill and her siblings suffered as a result.
Despite that, McNeill beat the odds and escaped poverty. Today, she owns a child care center. She’s married with two children, ages 10 and 11. She has a nice house and car. And she has a strong desire to give back. “When I see the girls we mentor,” she says, “I see myself.”
Her commitment extends beyond weekly meetings and outings. After a girl mentioned during a weekly small-group session that her baptism was approaching, McNeill and other mentors were at the church that Sunday. Mentors have attended graduations, recitals, school plays and sporting events. “If you show up and you’re in the stands, they’re like, wow, you do care,” McNeill says.
She cares enough to drive a girl home from an LOL meeting, then spend an hour in the driveway listening to the girl express the hurt she felt when her mother took in foster children. “She was used to one-on-one time with mom,” McNeill says.
McNeill values the willingness of girls to confide in her, but some things can’t be kept secret, such as when a troubled girl indicates she might hurt herself. “You have to make sure that you care enough to say, ‘Thank you for telling me this, but we have to get you some help.’”
Mentors hold the girls accountable in various ways, such as monitoring their grades. Mentors also check in with the girls’ caregivers, who are often single parents or grandparents. Such interactions allow LOL to offer support and resources not only for the girls, but also their families.
United Way’s support extends beyond funding. Laura Wells, United Way’s senior manager for volunteer and community engagement, has helped secure various in-kind donations for LOL girls and their families: dental care kits from Procter & Gamble; feminine hygiene products from a personal care product drive conducted by Ethicon-Endo Surgery Inc.; and personal hygiene items, school supplies, and shelf-stable healthy snacks from United Way’s Virtual Product Drive.
Wells also connected LOL with P&G’s Feminine Care team, which created and printed Empowerment Journals for all the girls. On each page is an inspirational quote, such as this from Michelle Obama: “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.”
Mentors like McNeill put girls on the path toward realizing their full potential. She says she knows she’s making a difference when she attends a mentee’s graduation; when she helps a teen and her mother mend a broken relationship; when she sees a girl flourish and say, “Someday, I want to be a mentor.”
For more information on UWGC's Black-Led Social Change programs including Black Empowerment Works, CLICK HERE.
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