Sylvia martinez head shotIf not for Girls Inc., Sylvia Martinez might never have seen snow first-hand, flown in an airplane or hiked in Southeast Asia. And it's likely she wouldn't have had the chance to become the new Vice President of Programs for Girls Inc. of Memphis

"To this day, my mom credits Girls Inc. with giving me wings," Sylvia says. "Girls Inc. gave me my first ride on a plane, my first ID and my first snow. I'm so grateful for those opportunities."

That gratitude and Sylvia's life experiences make her an ideal addition to the Girls Inc. of Memphis leadership team. She left a position as Program Director for Girls Inc. of Greater Los Angeles to join our team. But her Girls Inc. story goes back much further.

Sylvia was born in California and lived in Mexico from ages 2 to 9. After her family moved back to the Santa Barbara area, she was bullied for not speaking English. With strength, determination and the help of a fourth-grade teacher she moved past all that and was eligible for honors classes by sixth grade.

She discovered Girls Inc. by accident - she was told the Girls Inc. center in Carpinteria would let her use the gym to practice basketball. And that's when she got her first taste of the Girls Inc. Experience.

"I found myself at Girls Inc. of Carpinteria," Sylvia said. "It allowed me to see myself through someone else's eyes."

Gaining a different perspective was particularly important, Sylvia says, because she grew up in a very traditional household. From her immigrant parents she learned hard work, resourcefulness and resilience. But their awareness of possibilities was limited.

"Basically, it's 'If you don't leave the house married, you just stay there," she said. "Girls Inc. helped me explain things to my parents. To say, 'I want to be in this program.' Pretty soon, Girls Inc. had my mom's seal of approval."

At Girls Inc., she worked with mentors from Island Magazine to write and edit a magazine for girls by girls. She learned about college admissions and scholarships. In short, she learned to spread her wings.

"Through Girls Inc., I was also able to travel to Washington D.C. 'If I can go on this trip,' I thought, 'I can go to college, move out, and make it on my own.' That first airplane trip was my first step towards independence. It opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. Where else can I go? What else can I do?"

Quite a lot, it turns out. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Spanish from University of California,Santa Barbara. She taught language arts and reading to kids with autism spectrum disorder and did one-on-one and group tutoring in Spanish, math and science. She also managed special projects for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles and helped create and run that agency's successful Women in Entertainment mentoring program.

Along the way, she earned a Master's in Psychology from the University of Phoenix, took time off to spend time with her family and spent several months hiking in Southeast Asia. The thread tying it all together was Sylvia's connection with Girls Inc. - and it’s ultimately what brought her here to Memphis.

"At one point I thought I was going to be a lawyer because they make lots of money," Sylvia said. "But Girls Inc. allowed me to see other possibilities. I work with youth because I am so passionate - because I had someone in my corner - and I want to be that person for other girls. I want every girl to have those opportunities for themselves. All it takes is having someone in your corner."

Brooke jones

Brooke Jones is a senior engineer in the Product Movement and Engineering department at FedEx. Her fascination with computer science and aviation started with an early social networking site that predates Facebook.

"I liked building websites--back in the day I used MySpace," she says. "That's what drew me into STEM."

But it was Girls Inc. of Memphis that sealed the deal. Starting in tenth grade, Brooke took part in TRiO programming through Girls Inc., opening her eyes to the world of math and science. The summers she spent at math and science camp at UT Knoxville intensified her interest.

"Those camps opened my eyes because there were students there from all over the place," she said. "I was never that interested in chemistry before, but once I got there and saw people who were so good at it, I wanted to learn more."

She earned her bachelor's in technology management from the University of Memphis in 2012 and soon transformed her part time job at FedEx office into full time technology work at FedEx. She's proud of her success as a woman working in a field dominated by men--and of what that success has meant for her and her family.

"Growing up, my mom was disabled," Brooke said as a panelist following a special showing of Hidden Figures for Girls Inc. participants (see story above). "My aunt took care of me and mom and we always lived with somebody else. Last year I bought my first house. Working hard and being able to take care of my mom by myself and not having to put the burden on someone else has been so rewarding."

Brooke continues to learn and grow--while working she's managed to earn a master's degree in aviation management. But her Girls Inc. connection has also helped mold her into a role model and inspired her to be more involved in the community. Her willingness to serve on the panel for the Hidden Figures event is just one example.

"We need more movies like Hidden Figures," Brooke says. "I think it did an amazing job of showcasing three women in science. And I expect to see more like it. I think the creative minds have identified the avenues available to expose girls to STEM and make it interesting."

With or without Hollywood, Brooke says she'll continue to advocate for making STEM education available to all girls.

"Organizations offering STEM camps and workshops to young women are crucial to the advancement of women in STEM," Brooke said. "STEM is not as trendy as fashion and other arts, but it is the foundation of all those things. The more we expose young girls to the endless possibilities STEM has, it will become a trend."

 

Kelsey Hicks

Kelsey Hicks left Memphis for college with plans to become a neonatologist. Today, she's Director of the Women's Resource Center at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., a dream position, she says, that she started just two months ago. Her road has been long and winding  - her ease navigating that road is a testament to where she spent a lot of her time growing up.

"Girls Inc. has made me compassionate and considerate," says 29-year-old Kelsey, "and also daring and empowered - in a sense, fearless."

Put another way - Kelsey Hicks is bold.

She was active at the South Park Center from age 5 to 18, where she was exposed to everything from gymnastics to ballet and learned--from studying historical figures and from spending time with center staff--what it means to be a bold woman of color.

"One thing that I always remember about being at Girls Inc. of Memphis - they forced me to face my fears. I didn't want to be in gymnastics - but they always pushed me. I can still hear the women that worked at our center. 'You can do it! Don't be scared--just try it!'

"And in the middle of that I can hear my mom. She always used to say, 'Nothing beats an effort but a try.'”

Kelsey was born in Clarksdale, Miss., moved to Memphis at 4 and started Girls Club (which soon became Girls Inc. of Memphis) at age 5. Her immersion in Girls Inc. programming shaped her over the next 13 years, and Girls Inc. became extended family.

"I am an only child," Kelsey said, "but I have sisters and aunts from Girls Inc. everywhere - they are my family."

She absorbed everything Girls Inc. had to offer and by 14 she was working as an intern, counseling girls about their health and their sexuality. As part of the college prep program, she toured colleges in Mississippi her senior year, but wound up choosing The University of Tennessee at Knoxville where she quickly changed her major from biomedical engineering to religious studies. 

"It turns out I love the social side of people more than I love the physical side," she said.

She earned her bachelor's in 2005 and worked for a publishing company then went to work for the State of Tennessee in child protective services. She loved the work but it overwhelmed her and she decided to make a big change. She moved to Georgia, moved in with a family friend and got to work on a masters in education at Mercer University.

"I was determined I was not going to let myself go back home and I was determined I was going to get the degree and it was going to get me where I needed and wanted to be."

She got the degree, then worked at the College of Wooster in Ohio and at Texas Woman's University. Along the way she experienced sexism, racism, inadequate pay and a fair amount of frustration. But she didn't give up - she just drew on that Girls Inc. boldness.

"I looked at what I was doing and said 'I can do more. I can be more.'"

At Bucknell she is the youngest director in her department, working to support students and act as a liaison to administration. She draws on her experiences at Girls Inc. and beyond every day to enrich her students and build them up.

"I am bold in this position," Kelsey says. "Everything I’ve done professionally has been a bold step. Even if it didn’t match, I have moved, navigated and built community wherever I’ve been."

Her perseverance along her winding career path has paid off and she's now paid to empower her students in the same way that she's been empowered.

"Girls Inc. encouraged me to stand up and be unapologetic," Kelsey said, "and that I don’t have to please anyone on my journey of exploration but myself.  They were my village - the village it takes to raise a child."

Mattie and lisa

Mattie Reese is a freshman majoring in nursing at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. She's happy, confident and a shining example of the importance of Girls Inc. and the power of mentors.

Mattie says she never had a mother figure and her father left when she was 15. What she DID have was her Girls Inc. family beginning at the age of nine. "My mentors at Girls Inc. were my mother support," Mattie says. "They helped me become a beautiful, strong, smart and bold young lady."

Lisa says that since Mattie's graduation from Manassas, a community of women has surrounded Mattie to help her transition from high school to college.

"Mattie has no family support and has been living on her own for much of her childhood, going from friends’ and mentors’ homes over the years," Lisa said. "Girls Inc. alumna, staff and friends hosted a ‘trunk party’ to set her up with dorm room supplies. One mentor, a former Girls Inc. staff member, drove Mattie to college and still hosts her for holidays and breaks."

When there was a snag with her financial aid package, Mattie assumed she was coming home before she'd even started her first semester. Two staff members drove to Little Rock to help, and she was able to start her freshman year. She completed her first semester only to find that she had an unpaid balance of $1,723. Lisa turned to her friends on Facebook.

"Within 24 hours, 16 women that had never met Mattie were so inspired by her story that they pledged enough to cover the balance," Lisa said. "As a community of women, we have stepped in for Mattie. Some have given her shelter, food and clothing. Others  have offered advice and support navigating her educational journey. All have given their love. Mentoring comes in many forms, and all are valuable!"

"It's awesome - they did it for me!" she said. "They want to see me succeed even though I had a lot of trials and tribulations. I thank them every day for their motivation. It makes me work harder."

Mattie says the ongoing support from her team of mentors has inspired her to pay it forward by helping other young women.

Testimonials

I was very shy and didn’t speak to anyone or interact with others much. I love to read, have natural hair, have been called weird. I came to Girls Inc. and because I was accepted the way I am, I came out of my shell. I tried new things, I have found my voice. - Rahni


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Girls Inc. of Memphis
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