ENCINITAS — When Charlene Marshall obtained custody of her grandaughter Destiny three years ago, she admits that she felt overwhelmed and unsure as to how she’d be able to balance her career with taking care of Destiny.
“I was kind of at a loss as to how I was going to do this,” Marshall said. “I’m now all of a sudden a guardian and I work and was already getting burned out. I’m an older woman so I get tired, I get exhausted…but I knew that she needed me, she needed the stability, the support, and I needed her at that point in my life.”
Destiny, now 10 years old, came from a traumatic background and needed regular counseling and mental health services. So when a friend referred Charlene to Girls Rising, a mentorship program pairing young girls with adult women, she was eager to seek out the help.
For both Destiny and herself, Charlene says that the program has been life-changing. Destiny sees her mentor every Saturday, and the pair have practically become best friends, regularly going hiking together, cooking cupcakes and playing board games on a regular basis.
The one-on-one time they spent together has also made all the difference for Destiny’s mental health, Charlene said.
“She’s her big sister, period,” Charlene said. “It’s very personalized and that’s what I like about it, is that they seem like they really care and they’re compassionate. They make all of these kids feel so special, and these kids are already less fortunate than others so Girls Rising takes them and makes them feel like they’re a part of something, a unit — they’re really good in that personal aspect.”
Founded in 2012, Girls Rising was originally a part of The Big Sister League of San Diego, a local nonprofit providing housing programs for women with mental illness. After more than 30 years of being a part of the Big Sister League, Girls Rising separated from the larger organization out of a desire to focus specifically on the mentorship needs of younger girls.
The organization exclusively assists girls between the ages of 8 to 17, and the focus is on mentoring those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and underserved communities, according to Ashley Blanc, executive director of Girls Rising.
“It’s important for our girls to have as many consistent adults in their lives as possible, so when we match them with mentors, we can guarantee that they’ll have another positive consistent adult role model in their life,” Blanc said.
The nonprofit pairs girls in the program one-on-one with adult female mentors who volunteer with Girls Rising. Once a girl is successfully paired, the mentor and mentee meet regularly to check in and go on outings where they engage in activities ranging from health and wellness to arts and music.
Additionally, the program provides 6 to 8 group events a year, which include occasions such as holiday parties, camping trips and yoga classes.
Girls Rising serves as not only an outlet for girls to stay active and engaged in their communities, it also provides them with a steady adult role model that they can rely on when life gets challenging, Blanc said.
“A lot of the girls in the age bracket we serve, they’re affected by social media and anxiety, so it’s so important for them to have a mentor to get out of the house and show them different activities and things they might not experience in day-to-day life,” Blanc said. “(And) to give them lessons that they can look back on when they’re facing challenges and see other things outside of the immediate problems that they’re facing.”
The program’s results speak for themselves. Since 2012, every Girls Rising mentee (100%) has matriculated to the next grade, graduated from high school and reported satisfaction with the program. The organization also boasts a 0% teen pregnancy rate, Blanc noted.
Career Day on May 14 will offer girls in the program an opportunity to learn about professional opportunities while also providing guidance on how to effectively chart a career path, Blanc said.
“Career Day is set up so that it’s not just a bunch of booths, you’ll be able to have longer-term conversations with each booth and can really engage and ask a lot of questions, it’s more personalized,” said Blanc.
In addition to personalizing each girls’ resume, the program will have participants rotate 10-15 minute sessions from booth to booth, exposing the girls to entrepreneurs, engineers, musicians, and even representatives of the San Diego District Attorney’s Office, which is helping Girls Rising put on the event.
“The benefit of the little sister having her own mentor already is that it sets them up for more in-depth conversations and exposing them to other people in turn that can also be mentors, and so expanding that network of strong women that will be able to help them along the way.”
Career Day will also be sponsored by San Diego Gas & Electric and cosponsored by Sun Bum, an Encinitas-based skincare product company. The sponsors will put on an interactive workshop teaching girls how to build their resumes as well as providing education on other aspects of the job searching and application process.
“It’ll be more of a behind-the-scenes look at different career options — there are so many great opportunities for girls out there,” Blanc. “They’ll learn, for instance, that they have different options in the food industry, that there’s a business aspect to it, there’s administration, etc. This is so important for our middle and high school girls because they are our next-generation workforce.”
Monique Myers, a prosecutor with the District Attorney’s Office helping with Career Day, said that Girls Rising provides a unique model of mentorship that builds a high level of trust between participants and mentors, facilitating strong and fruitful relationships for the future.
“Developing trust with an individual person takes time. Having the big sister model builds trust and allows the mentee to open up to the person, and that’s especially important in the historically underserved communities that these girls come from, where they might not have a lot of stability at home,” Myers said.
“Girls Rising mixes fun with education, they have educational programs that empower girls in STEM, arts, and sciences, but they do it in a fun way, and by doing that it makes the mentees more active participants and more open to connecting to all of the mentors,” she said.
Career Day will be an extremely important occasion for a lot of these young girls who may never have had the opportunity to be exposed to certain career and life paths before, Myers added.
“They might go from a classical musician’s booth to an entrepreneur to the DA’s office…and that diversity of exposure allows the little sisters to see the wide options available to them in ways that they might not have considered, it will show them that there is a tangible path that they can take.”
“It’s challenging to think about what you want to be when you grow up,” the prosecutor continued. “Sometimes we think too hard about doing X, Y, Z, but if you can talk with someone and see a path forward, then maybe that becomes their actual career, maybe they’re exposed to something else that becomes the dream. It opens up people’s world, their worldview expands because there are just so many options of how you could land.”