April 2019 - Sink or Swim

TRUTH: When you see another girl in what is bound to be an embarrassing moment, what do you do?

 

Once when I was in school, I had to pass a swim test. I was not an amazing swimmer, but I didn’t want anyone to know. I figured I could at least get across the pool. I could not. As I exited the pool, a wet mess with a class of kids surrounding me, my bathing suit strap slipped and for an endless moment, I stood there exposed. I will never forget how I felt, how I wanted to run and never see those kids again.

 

Today I wonder how the moment might’ve been different if another girl had run over, maybe said something kind, ushered me to another spot...heck, just STOOD with me.

 

StrongHER TogetHER girls...don’t be another girl who watches someone struggle through their low moment. Go stand beside her. And show that girl you’ve got her. Let THAT be the memory she carries. ❤️  Let THAT be the leader you are.

June 2018 - Eleven Plus Months - It's Been REAL

When I was eleven years old (like many of our StrongHER TogetHER girls), I was definitely not the popular kid.  But boy, did I want to be.  Oh, how I longed for the soft leather loafers and the extra money for a nutty-buddy during recess and that cool swagger that made every kid wanna sit close by on the bus and hang on my every word.  But truth be told, I was nothing like that. Taller than most, my pants were unfashionably high-water. Not to mention, my light-hearted banter was about as dull as toast and usually involved copious amounts of sweat (mine).  I was definitely no natural when it came to being a COOL PERSON.  Still...I persevered.  By golly...I wanted to be LIKED. 

 

I remember middle school as a monochrome stage of life.  No bright colors.  Just a time to muddle through, to morph into someone else better than who I was at the time.  During those years, I remember looking at my long time bumpkin compadres in a different way.  Sure, she was the only girl my age for a country mile, but...was she the RIGHT kind of friend for me?  Too simple?  Too boring?  Too different?  And what about all the new girls I was meeting?  Did this one smile like she meant it?  Didn't that one act uppity?  My goodness, but there was a lot of sizing up to be done in middle school, wasn't there?  

Sure enough, when high school came, the colors turned BRIGHT and lo and behold, there I was...a redneck chick bussed in from a tiny town of 500...reasonably accepted and yes, maybe even liked.  The social prowess I had unconsciously wielded during my middle grade years had paid off! Or at least, that's how it seemed.  After all, I was a good student, I was elected school president, I was a cheerleader.   AND mostly?...I was a FAKE. Because the very best parts of me, the parts that gave me texture and made me different...those parts were hidden.  Hidden was the girl who knew how to barn tobacco and string leaves for days.  Hidden was the girl who dug up worms in the woods by the house and traipsed across the pasture to fish.  Hidden was the girl who rode in the back of her daddy's pickup truck and hollered made-up words to songs with her sister.  HIDDEN.  For many of the adult years to follow, this happy nest of shallow camaraderie would be a perch I would seek out and enjoy at every turn.

Sure was a long way to fall, though.

Today and for a good many years now, I've come to realize the deep flaws of that middle grade mindset that trailed me for decades to come and undoubtedly cost me more than a few of life's gems.  I wish I could live it all over again, only through a different lens.  Because here's what I figured out the hard way...being liked because you fit in is NOT what cool is.  BEING REAL IS WHAT COOL IS, my friends.  Being your truest self, whatever that is––shy, artsy, uncoordinated, average, nervous, geekish, dreamy, meticulous, embarrassed, broke, excited, funny, noisy, smart, fast––THAT's what's cool!  And guess what else?  Know what's even cooler? When the REAL YOU gives other girls the space and encouragement they need to be who they are, to be their BEST.  

StrongHER TogetHER is a program intended to teach girls to stick together, no matter how different they are.  In another month, on July 25th, we will be one year old.  Here are a few things we've done in the past 11 months:

 

Solidified friendships between 13 COMPLETELY DIFFERENT Bull City girls

Cheered one another at concerts, dance performances and ball games

Consoled one another in the loss of loved ones, family issues, friendship woes, relocations and even tonsillectomies :-)

Experienced tons of FIRSTS, ie 1st summer camp, 1st visit to a college campus, 1st manicure, 1st time holding a tennis racket, 1st ice skating experience and on and on

Hosted three WOMEN OF DURHAM programs

Heard inspiring stories from amazing Bull City women involved in non-profits, medicine, law, education, sports and government

Supported Houston's Girls Inc Program after Hurricane Harvey Flooding

Formed incredible partnerships with Kidznotes, East Durham Children's Inititive, Durham Public Schools, Durham Academy, North Carolina Central University and Duke University

Attended empowerment workshops and YOU-CAN-DO-IT movies like STEP

Graced the pages of two local magazines - Durham Magazine's Women Issue :-0 and Durham Academy Magazine - Winter Edition

Made community friends like Mrs. Phyllis and Mr. Thomas at JC's Kitchen, plus Ogechi Onuigbo and Cameron Beach, too!

Celebrated birthdays (because K-12 are party-time ages, people!)

Ate super fast, always fun cafeteria lunches together

Put sparkly headbands in Big Mac, our bus driver's hair (wait...what hair?)

But most of all...13 COMPLETELY DIFFERENT Bull City girls learned about sticking together.  No matter how different they are.

Sometimes I think about how my own life and maybe even our whole generation might've been different if someone had taken a moment to help us girls worry less about fitting in and more about fitting together.  Who knows, right?  But for now, for today, my money's on this crew.  They're cheering for one another.  They're straight-fire cool.  But most of all...

 

They will change everything.

 

Just watch.

 

Wish us luck as we get ready to take on another year and grow our program once again.  Through it all, being cool, being REAL.

August 2017 - A Special Donation Blog for Friends of StrongHER TogetHER

It’s been a heck of an inaugural summer for our program!  Two weeks ago, we finished summer camp with girls from six schools in Durham and it exceeded everything we might’ve hoped for.  Friendships began, ideas blossomed and kids were listening. REALLY listening.  The affirmation we received from these girls––the notion that solidifying their connections makes them stronger––it was palpable.  We left camp with a renewed appreciation for the merits of StrongHER TogetHER…girls ARE poised and ready to do better by one another.  But they need something to make their efforts more concerted, their opportunities for connection more reachable, their focus more steady.  A CATALYST.  So…thanks summer camp.  You gave us a glimpse of the possible and told us how we were a part of it.  We couldn’t have asked for more than that.  :-)

 

One day after camp ended, another awesome thing happened.  We became an official 501(c)(3) non-profit!  We are so thankful for all this means to our program!  But now the hard work begins.  Because the only way we can offer programming, camps and scholarships to our girls, most of whom are from underserved parts of our community, is through grants and tax-deductible donations from folks like you.  In the coming months, we will be focused specifically on scholarship funds that each girl would be able to use toward her individual interests.  Interests that oftentimes go unrecognized or unsupported due to financial roadblocks. For this our pilot year, we are hoping to distribute roughly $500 per girl.  A contribution can give a ten-year-old Durham girl a chance to move forward.  And it gives other girls something tangible to cheer for.  Can you help us?

 

https://www.stronghertogether.org/donate

 

We will continue to keep you posted with updates about our program and/or fundraising efforts.  Until then, know that your support is an integral part of any success we celebrate.  Thank you SO much for all you do. 

August 2017 - Two Violinists and the Thursday Conundrum

But what about Thursday? Nothing fun'll happen on Thursday, right?  We were one day into our first StrongHER TogetHER summer camp and already two of our girls were considering the ramifications of missing a day.  They were both violinists extraordinaire. Ten years old with five years of orchestra under their belts and a Kidznotes concert at 1pm.  On Thursday.  All week I tried to reassure them. No worries.  We probably won't go to Disney that day.  But kidding aside, I knew this was weighing heavy on their fifth-grade minds.  In fact, it was weighing heavy on mine, too.  

But our camp week was chock full of heavy stuff, come to think of it.  Heavy boxes of donated lunches from beyond generous Durham.  Heavy group chats about anything from middle school to social media to individual passions.  Heavy, shameless, ridiculously fun marketing efforts by thirteen girls who were appalled I had only managed to garner four followers for our Instagram account...(social media lame-o here).  And oh yes, heavy, heavy eyelids from late night preparations and early morning bus rides to pick up the girls.  

And yet.

This perfect, amazing week was light years beyond anything I had imagined for this, our pilot group.  After all, here we were...with girls from six different schools and umpteen different backgrounds.  How much group bonding could you realistically hope for after just a week?  Some traded numbers on the last day? a half-hearted wave goodbye?  But when we asked the girls on the final day how they felt about StrongHER TogetHER, what they understood it to be about...imagine our astonishment when we got answers like StrongHER TogeTHER:  

 

Gives us a chance to be friends

Shows us how to stick together

Makes us stronger as a team

 

THUMP (that's me, collapsing).  Because whoa!  They GOT it!  In fact, they more than GOT it...they OWNED it.  Remember that Instagram thing?  Less than two days after realizing my mom and three (half) cousins were our only followers, these girls managed to video, street-beg and contest their way to 51 followers! Why? Because they thought it was important for their program to have some respectable numbers, some "street-cred" for their peers to see.  I gotta tell you...that one thing alone made us see the potential power of these newly-connected fifth graders.  

But it was Thursday that blew us away.  The moment eleven girls in auditorium seats waved at a couple of unsuspecting violinists on their way up to the stage. The proud grins, the congratulatory hugs afterwards.  And oh yes, the I-CAN'T-BELIEVE-YOU-CAME gratitude.  Something shaky in me found firm ground that afternoon, friends.  Because for the first time, we had brought the mission of StrongHER TogetHER to life.  We had experienced what it felt like to support and be supported by other girls.  And as simple as the gesture was...it was empowering.

When you take a look at our 2017 Summer Camp photos in the Gallery, pay special attention to the group picture with two girls holding violins near the top of the page.  There you'll see glimpses of faces I won't soon forget, faces I've bottled up for keeps.  It was a Thursday, yes.  But maybe more than that, it was a birthday.  Because for me, it was the day StrongHER TogetHER came to life.

February 2017 - YANKIN' UP THE DOORMAT

I don’t like you, but happy birthday anyway, wrote one little girl to another.  The birthday girl’s mom had shared the story with me months ago, but the words lay in my mind like a sandy doormat waiting for someone to snatch it up and shake the daylights out of it.  What was up with us girls? I wondered.  Why were we so good at clawing one other––with a SMILE?

 

And now here we were, Veshana and I, sitting in a corner diner on a cold November morning where more mean words had been hurled.  Only this time, spray painted on a parking lot wall for the world to see.  A hate crime.  In our own backyard.  We were sick inside and we had come to the diner to show our support, to see how we could help, to say how very sorry we were that things like this still happened.  A thick mist settled over us as we slid into our seats and tried to sort out humanity and its many blemishes.  They were rising to the surface in waves now.  And we weren’t ready for it.

 

But the diner owner, Ms. P., had no use for distress.  The wall had been painted over and the ugly words were a thing of the past.  It was done.  We watched her buzz around, her eyes taking in every little thing, her smile real and warm, hands busy, busy, busy.  She was everything.  A waitress, a hostess, a cook, a cashier.  And oh yes, a sister.  Over the next few visits, Veshana and I would learn much about this force of a woman.  How her sister was her dearest friend.  How for twenty-five years, they talked every day from different corners of the world.  The sister running the diner, making plans to grow the business.  Ms. P. working as a missionary.  How one fated day, the sister died and Ms. P. came back home, thinking and praying and hoping she would know what to do without her best friend.  Until finally…she did––by golly, she would love her sister the same as she always had.  For the next eight years, Ms. P. took over where her sister left off.  She ran the diner.  She learned the business.  And more than anything, she made her sister’s dreams come true.

 

The words on the wall were hateful alright.  They had held a message laced with power.  The power to discourage, the power to oppress, the power to diminish.  But oh, how powerless Ms. P. had made those words.  For many mornings, we watched her welcome friends and neighbors and newcomers.  Wrap her arms around each of them with a smile that said You’re the EXACT person I wanted to see!   We saw her steely faith in humanity, the way her friends lifted her even higher, the way she was determined to find good in the bad.  She was beyond upstanding and strong, this woman, and we were smitten with her. 

 

I don’t like you, but happy birthday anyway.  The words still lay on that sandy doormat in my head, waiting.  But mornings with Ms. P. had kicked it up a little, given it a wrinkle.  It was hard not to trip over it now, those mean words hurled from one little girl to another.  Would my friend’s daughter be like Ms. P.?  Would she let those hateful words make her stronger?  Lean on the arms of little girls who would lift her up?  

 

When Veshana and I knew StrongHER TogetHER was our thing, our answer to this new, bold world we found ourselves in, it was a much-needed good day.  Like a hot meal and a shower after a long slog through the mud.  We had figured it out, this mission of ours.  And now that we finally knew what we were supposed to do, we found peace of mind and dove right into...losing our minds! 

 

Months have passed since that first morning in the diner and we have learned much.  But we both know it’s not a fraction of the learning that lies ahead.  Still.  We are staying the course.  Because girls deserve it.  They deserve to learn the power of TOGETHER vs APART. And like anyone with a vision, we daydream about making real change, about joining forces with like-minded women and showing girls far and wide a different way.  Wouldn’t THAT be amazing?  But for now, we are barely past the starting line.  We are two and we are growing and we are blanketing our amazingly receptive city with this notion of forging girls’ relationships and lifting them as high as we possibly can.  Will it work?  Will it make any difference?  Only time and energy and blood, sweat and tears will tell.  But for now, for today, Veshana and I are shaking that sandy doormat and its mean words as hard as we can.  And in our minds, the words are like little sandy specks fading further and further out of sight.

 

Stay tuned here to join us on the journey and most of all…wish us luck!