Supporters of the Young Women Leaders Program enjoyed the Third Annual Fundraising Luncheon in recognition of the program’s successes at Alumni Hall last week.

Rotating photos of YWLP group meetings and events from this year projected on to a large screen in the ballroom to set a celebratory tone, along with beautiful floral arrangements as centerpieces adorned tables. Sarah McConnell, producer and host of the public radio program “With Good Reason” warmly welcomed guests as well as conducted closing remarks.

The Women’s Center and Curry School jointly sponsor YWLP, so WC Director Sharon Davie introduced the keynote speaker, Joanne Boyle, coach of U.Va.’s women’s basketball team.

Davie described Boyle as “someone who truly epitomizes the mission of YWLP in all that she does.” In addition to developing the leadership skills of her players on the court, she has dedicated much of her life to community service by going on basketball team trips to visit Africa, where they spent time with playing with children at orphanages, as well as bringing her team to local schools and sponsoring clinics. Boyle, along with her staff and team, also teaches lessons “focused on improving skills, instilling passion, as well as balancing competition and fun” when working with children from ages 5 to 18 in the Joanne Boyle Basketball Camps at U.Va.

Boyle further emphasized her desire to “influence others” and “to make a difference” when she spoke of an original dream to be in the Peace Corps but later finding she was meant to mentor through coaching basketball. Called by her strong faith to serve, she described her experiences with coaching athletes in difficult situations ranging from a parent’s sudden death to unexpected pregnancy. Boyle emphasized how mentoring calls for you to not only “share your perspective” but also “understand their story.” Boyle said she feels called to “pour into other people” in her work and in her future adoption of a child from Africa, Nygoti.

Following Boyle’s speech, YWLP Director Edith “Winx” Lawrence gave an overview of the purpose for YWLP, along with benefits seen in both the middle school girls and undergraduate women who participate.

Lawrence described how 17 years ago, with several doctoral students, including Kim Roberts at the Women’s Center, she had the intention of “helping girls dream big,” as they gathered research indicating that girls needed help specifically in middle school.

With all the changes that girls go through at that age with their “body, brains and buddies,” they struggle to maintain confidence, according to Lawrence. Some researchers suggest that this particular group needs more monitoring than toddlerhood. Lawrence noted that fighting with family members could increase up to 20 times per month during this developmental period, and for adolescent girls the majority of their fights are with their mothers.

Therefore, a female mentor at the college age can provide a “cool” role model in developing middle school girls’ leadership skills that include problem solving, supporting friends and navigating differences.

Four local schools, Burley, Buford, Jouett and Sutherland, select 50 7th and 8th grade girls each year to be in YWLP, girls with the “potential to be leaders but maybe haven’t found their stride yet […] and could benefit from somebody to lend a helping hand, to listen, to support, to be their cheer leaders,” according to Lawrence. Two-thirds of these girls selected come from single-parent homes or qualify for free and/or reduced-price lunch.

In addition to researching adolescent girls, Lawrence also found research on mentoring programs that concluded that only about half of mentoring relationships lasted more than three months. She believes this is because mentoring is harder than people think so it is important for programs to build in support for the mentors.

For YWLP, she developed a college course for the mentors that introduces them to theory and research on issues facing adolescent girls and best practices in mentoring. She also structured the program so that pairs meet two hours per week with six other pairs in a group to focus on leadership activities and four hours per month one-on-one to build their relationship.  Furthermore, YWLP provides leadership projects within the school, local community and international sister sites.

Ultimately, the research has also proven that YWLP has a lasting effect with “75 percent or more of middle school girls reporting that YWLP has helped them improve the way they listen to people who are different from them, support their friends, deal with problems, interact with people with different views and think about their future.” YWLP mentors, after a year of working, also had significantly greater growth as independent thinkers and in cultural empathy.

The statistics then came to life at the luncheon as YWLP Assistant Director Melissa Levy introduced three Big-Little Sister pairs who at first timidly came up to the microphone to speak. Once started, seventh grader at Burley Middle School, Maggie Saunders, spoke vividly of her growing confidence through the program. Alexus Banks, also a seventh grader at Burley, shared how she became more outgoing.  Dayzia Gross-Harris, seventh grader at Buford Middle School, was paired with a Buford alumna as a mentor, which made U.Va. student Zoe Gallop feel like she was giving back to a community who supported her. Lastly, U.Va. student Chelsea Kenney described her commitment to the program as a Big Sister for two years who will go on to be a group facilitator in the coming school year.

YWLP relies on limited funding, numerous grants and the generosity of donors. It takes $5,000 to run a group, which includes food, materials and leadership activities. If you could not attend the luncheon and feel moved to donate, please visit this link.

By Agnes Filipowski