Girl Empowerment Partnership Notches Five-Year Anniversary

Story by Kathy McPherson

Durham Academy will be beaming with pride when StrongHER TogetHER celebrates its fifth birthday this spring. The organization, which brings together young girls from different backgrounds with the hope of empowering them to make the world a better place, was founded in 2017 by two women whose children were DA students and the school continues to be an integral part of StrongHER TogetHER.

StrongHER TogetHER currently serves nearly 60 girls in grades five through nine. The diverse group of girls comes from 28 elementary and middle schools across the community and the program has about 20 youth representatives, high school students who help mentor the younger girls. Another 12 girls will join the program this spring. The expectation is that they will continue with the program for eight years, until they graduate from high school.

“Girls are nominated by school counselors in the spring of their fourth-grade year and then they're invited to participate in one day of our summer camp after they're nominated,” said Stacey Donoghue, who co-founded the nonprofit with Dr. Veshana Ramiah and serves as its executive director. “They become fully active in the fall of their fifth-grade year. We're still really small because we only add as many girls every year as we can support with resources. … Our numbers are not huge, but we're getting there.

“I couldn't say enough about how Durham Academy has supported us, literally, since the very first moment,” Donoghue said. “We were able to meet with Michael [Ulku-Steiner, head of school] and talk with him about our program and immediately the school nominated Durham Academy girls to be part of our program and they still are. 

“Durham Academy has supported us, whether it's providing a bus for kids who don't have transportation — because that's certainly a barrier to participation for many kids — or a facility,” Donoghue continued. “Every year we've been fortunate that DA has hosted us for summer camp, which is amazing. And outside of that, we have incredible leadership resources that are affiliated with Durham Academy. So on all kinds of fronts, whether it's resources, the leadership team or the girls themselves, we have strong ties to Durham Academy and we see DA as a partner that we're really, really lucky to have.”

The girls attend a week-long StrongHER TogetHER camp at DA in the summer and they gather every four to six weeks during the school year with their grade-level groups for activities that are fun, educational and enriching. They also come together program-wide for sessions on topics such as anti-racism and positive mental health. There is no cost to participate, with funding provided by grants, foundations and corporations. 

Dr. Cindy Moore, DA’s Middle School learning specialist, and Dan Gilson, director of DA’s Extended Day program, have been a part of StrongHER TogetHER’s board since the organization began.

“Stacey made a point to make sure to draw kids from a variety of different schools because the program is about connecting over differences,” Gilson said. “She wanted to make sure that we weren't pulling all of our kids from one school or one type of school, so there are public schools, private schools, charter schools.

“Regardless of where you're from, or who you are, what your life is like or all these different factors, we can all get together and do the same things and learn from one another and enjoy one another,” he continued. “We can help one another, do things for our community, learn from our community and be involved in all these ways without feeling like we are too different to do the same things.”

While StrongHER TogetHER focuses on girls, Gilson said it’s a program that benefits the entire community. “It's something that we're hoping makes all the schools that we're in better, that radiates out from the kids who are in the program to their families and to their friends and to their teachers. And likewise, for us on the board, that we get to spread that positive impact.”

Moore said she was drawn to StrongHER TogetHER “because I'm a girl, because I'm a mom of girls. I've always felt like being a girl in middle school is hard. Girl friendships are hard. Mother-daughter relationships are hard. So anything that I could do to help move through the transition during those times made it an easy decision for me to be a part of this organization. Moving through the transition of middle school, adolescent, teenage years is a hard thing, and I think it's particularly hard on girls trying to navigate friendship.”

DA eighth-grader Alex Keegan is in her fourth year with StrongHER TogetHER and is part of the second group to come into the program.

“It's been really fun. You kind of learn how to meet new people, interact with other people,” Keegan said. “Having been at DA since kindergarten, I haven't always gotten the experience of hanging out with other kids. It's really nice to be able to do that and be able to bond. 

“It's also interesting. … We had someone come in and speak to us about racism and about ways to fight against it. We've had some things about Black History Month, learning about that. We've also had a new body positivity part of StrongHER TogetHER.”

Keegan said her group went on a field trip to the Nasher Art Museum and “we've also gotten more into community service. My group worked with an organization, we picked up pads and other period items and we packaged them so they could give them out to people who need them.” 

She said it was a little scary when she joined StrongHER TogetHER in the summer before fifth grade, “walking into a room with all of these girls that I didn't know. And now I'm really close with all of them, it's so fun to see them.”

DA seventh-grader Jocelyn Gilmore, now in her third year with StrongHER TogetHER, said the program “is important because it's a chance for people with different backgrounds and different skin colors to get together and spend some time together. … Sometimes it's serious things, like we talk about race and identity. Sometimes it's fun things, like at summer camp we go to the pool. But we always try to have fun and agree with each other, connect with it, connect to each other.”

Kennedy Turner and Mollie Doyle are among the DA juniors serving as StrongHER TogetHER youth representatives this year and helping to mentor the younger girls.

Turner said young women get so much negative attention from social media that it’s difficult to look at themselves in a positive way. She is grateful to have the influence of her mother and other women in her family and is sharing that with seventh-graders in StrongHER TogetHER. 

“Just taking what they told me and bringing it to these young girls is so important, being able to have this mentality of girls supporting girls,” Turner said. “It's so hard being a teenage girl and a young girl in today's society. Having this outlet to support them is just so, so nice. I'm thankful to be a part of it.”

Doyle is working with fifth-graders, the youngest group served by StrongHER TogetHER. She has been with them to a museum, a tiger rescue center and a session on anti-racism.

“I specifically love that I can get to meet a wide variety of young women, because all of them come from different backgrounds and pretty much everyone goes to different schools,” Doyle said. “We're all getting to meet new people and getting to hear about their stories and where they come from and what they've had to go through.”

Thanks to DA alumna Lana Kalfas ’19, girls in StrongHER TogetHER will soon learn more about the importance of telling their stories and different ways to tell their stories. Now a junior at Barnard College in New York City, Kalfas has volunteered with StrongHER TogetHER since her junior year at the Upper School. She was an intern with the program last summer and wrote a grant application that centered on storytelling. The North Carolina Humanities Council funded the grant and StrongHER TogetHER girls will participate in a series on storytelling with authors, poets, historians at N.C. Central University and folklore specialists at UNC-Chapel Hill. A member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation will talk about the tradition of oral storytelling in the tribe.

Kalfas said the storytelling workshop will “emphasize something that is already within all of our girls and we see within every activity we do when they open up and have these moments of sharing their stories, sharing their life experiences with one another and realizing how powerful it is when they are vulnerable in that way. … We're going to connect them with people who are doing this in creative ways, in structured ways, to better enable our girls to be empowered to tell their own stories, whether that's in school or with their friends or as part of a future job or something.”

Other members of the Durham Academy community who volunteer with StrongHER TogetHER include:

  • Jazmin Garcia Smith, youth representative team leader and senior dean of college counseling
  • Nahale Kalfas, board member and parent of alumnae
  • Emerson Levin '23, youth representative 
  • Mac McDonald, bus driver and maintenance staff member
  • Dr. Cindy Moylan, board member and current parent 
  • Jen Oldham, board member and Extended Day faculty
  • Georgie Rigby '23, youth representative 
  • Jen Rogers, group leader and Upper School learning specialist
  • Sara Shaikh '22, youth representative 
  • Zoe Sinclair '22, youth representative 
  • Zakia VanHoose, board member and Middle School Extended Day director