Ask Joy Thomas why she cares so deeply about the well-being of teenage girls, and she’ll tell you a story:
It happened one Sunday at church, when the pastor invited members of the congregation to share their prayer concerns. A teenage girl spoke up. She’d spent the previous night in the ICU with a friend who had attempted suicide.
“The pastor said, ‘I have a hunch there are others here who don’t feel worthy or happy in life.’ He asked the kids who felt like that to come forward, so the congregation could pray over them, and the pulpit was flooded with young people — primarily girls.” Joy recalls.
“That was my pushing point. I told my husband, ‘It is time for me to move.’ ”
Move, she did.
In 2015, Joy walked away from a secure job to launch the nonprofit LEAD Girls of NC, a leadership workshop series that provides the tools and resources preteen girls need to become confident and active leaders in their communities. At the heart of the program: mentoring and peer support.
“Our mission is to change the trajectory of girls’ lives and create a world of financially stable, independent and capable young women here in Forsyth County,” Joy says.“It is women who are living in poverty and cannot get out of it. If you really want to change that, you start early helping girls navigate and cultivate the skills to get a job.”
Topics for the workshops range from how to set goals, cope with stress, communicate with authority figures and navigate the dynamics of various relationships.
The nonprofit received a grant from The Women’s Fund in 2019 to pilot The LEAD Academy, which adds an evidence-based literacy component to their weekly program to improve participants’ reading and comprehension. Middle-school girls at Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy are paired with students from Wake Forest University.
Single mom Lakeshia Hall learned about the program at the 2019 LEAD Girls Rising Expo, a daylong conference for middle-school girls and their parents. She and daughter Ariana Rhymer heard many inspiring presentations by influential women that day.
“I decided this is something that I want my daughter to be a part of,” Lakeshia recalls.
Now a ninth-grader, Ariana says she loved being with the other girls in the program and learned a lot about herself. “Honestly, everything about it was my favorite.”
Providing a safe space for preteens to talk openly about issues that matter to them is critical to the program’s success, Joy says.
“The reality is, the middle-school years are tough. There are so many opportunities to be guided by either good or bad, to get in with the wrong crowd because a girl is looking for love and attention,” she says. “It’s a life-changing time for a girl. Either we raise them or the streets will.”
Nearly 450 girls have participated in LEAD Girls thus far, a milestone Joy believes would not have been possible without support from The Women’s Fund.
“I was a woman of color starting an organization and I didn’t have a bunch of funding,” Joy says. “The Women’s Fund was the first to believe in me and my vision, and it changed the trajectory of our organization. That is how change is made in our community.”