Reaching girls where COVID-19 placed themThe Nonprofit Journal Project

Our nonprofit, A Beautiful Me, empowers girls with life-giving messages about their self-worth and tools to build their confidence. We primarily work with girls through workshops and assemblies in schools and at our social enterprise retail store, The Closet by A Beautiful Me, in downtown Port Huron, Michigan.

When the pandemic closed schools and businesses in March, it also closed the door on our access to the hundreds of girls we were serving and were scheduled to serve in southeast Michigan.

Our staff and volunteers experienced heartache at the severing of budding relationships being formed at our in-school workshops and the abrupt halt to our business training program, emerge360, for teens at The Closet.

Without access to face-to-face interaction with the girls we served, how would we fulfill our mission?

Like many nonprofits, our small team packed up to move into our home offices and began meeting virtually to figure out how to innovate ways to do business and philanthropy.

We started with the girls we were serving in our teen program, and our team of mentors began a weekly virtual meeting with 70% of the girls in the program. As many business people across the world learned to navigate working from home, the etiquette of virtual meetings and good communication without the luxury of face-to-face interaction, our group of 14 to 18-year-old girls learned too.

Pen Pals Tina, Kimberly, Penny. Photo courtesy Karen Palka.

Over a 10 week period, we covered topics like professional email, marketing strategies, and personal mission statements. The girls appreciated the connection with their mentors and developed resilience as they adapted to the changes happening in the world.

Once the teens were connected, we began filming personalized videos for the girls who were attending our school workshops. Workshop Facilitators created personal messages for their group, and we were able to mail the girls their workshop materials, t-shirts, and a link to their facilitator’s video. This connection brought closure and connection to girls who were experiencing a lot of changes in their lives.

As the pandemic closures continued in our area, we needed to find a revenue source to replace the sales from our retail store, The Closet by A Beautiful Me. The Closet sells a wide spectrum of one-of-a-kind dresses and the sales fund our programs for girls. With closed doors and a lack of special occasions, sales dropped to zero.

Since our vision is to foster self-worth in ALL women of ALL ages, we innovated a new product called inspireHER encouragement gifts. This project used material we already had on hand but was repurposed into an encouraging gift for a girl of any age. These gifts ended up brightening many days for both the givers and the receivers.

Once our retail location could safely reopen, our Teen Training Program, emerge360, started back up. Teens are now being trained one-on-one with their mentors, and this small-group model should continue to be sustainable until the pandemic subsides.

With schools limiting visitors, going virtual, and dealing with the complications of the pandemic, we quickly realized that we would not be able to continue our in-person workshops through the remainder of 2020. Although this was disappointing, our team decided it was another opportunity for innovation, and that is how the Pen Pal Program began.

Our workshops reach nearly 300 girls in Southeast Michigan each school year, and our team of volunteers from Oakland, Macomb, St. Clair, and Genesee counties sign up year after year to work with them. Because of the isolating nature of quarantine and social distancing, we knew that our girls and our volunteers needed personal interaction.

Recent research by the ROX Institute found that 79% of girls report feeling more lonely or isolated than they did before the pandemic, and one in four girls report feeling sad or depressed four or more days per week. So we compiled a mailing list from our last two years of workshop participants and invited our volunteers to join us in small groups at our office to write them encouraging notes.

This week, we had 20 volunteers write to 300 girls all over Southeast Michigan, and we are planning to write to almost 100 more next week. The message to these girls is simple: we are grateful for you . . . you are important, just the way you are.

We’re not sure what to expect, but we are prepared with the supplies and volunteers to correspond with girls via good old-fashioned mail until we can get back to face-to-face meetings. By following our company’s core values and reinforcing the ideas we teach in our workshops, we continue to support, encourage, and connect with girls where COVID placed them: in their homes.

 

Karen Palka is the Founder & Executive Director of A Beautiful Me, Inc.in Port Huron. Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.
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