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The girls, all fifth-graders, live in all corners of Durham. They attend different schools, have different interests, face different challenges. But, most every day, you’ll find the girls messaging one another to check in on how school is going, to send birthday wishes, to just say goodnight. They come cheer one another on at musical performances. They send each other letters when times get tough.
The girls have been drawn together by StrongHER TogetHER, a program that aims to help girls pursue their dreams, all the while being supported by one another. The nascent nonprofit sprung from conversations between Stacey Donoghue and Dr. Veshana Ramiah, two Durham Academy parents who wanted to find a way to help girls lift one another up.
“As girls, we’re stereotyped as being catty, and snarky, and judgmental, and dramatic — we just have those labels on our foreheads,” Donoghue explained. “And this program is really geared toward helping us find a better way, to treat one another and to look at one another in a different way.”
StrongHER TogetHER’s primary partners are DA, Durham Public Schools, Kidznotes and East Durham Children’s Initiative, with each organization nominating a handful of students for the program. The overarching goal of StrongHER TogetHER, Donoghue said, is to teach girls “to stick together no matter how different they are.”
Girls and women sticking together and celebrating one another is at the core of Women of Durham, an event hosted by StrongHER TogetHER on Saturday. The event — set for 2 to 4 p.m. at Ponysaurus (219 Hood St.) — will feature first-person stories of how three Durham women have been helped along their journeys by other women. Featured speakers will be Katie Wyatt, executive director of El Sistema USA; Esther Mateo-Orr, a parent advocate with East Durham Children’s Initiative; and Ogechi Onuigbo, a senior at Durham School of the Arts and fashion model.
The Women of Durham event is free and open to the public, and donations to the StrongHER TogetHER Scholarship Fund — which provides financial support to help girls pursue their interests — are welcome. Two StrongHER TogetHER participants, including DA fifth-grader Giulia Laurenza, will speak briefly about the program and answer questions.
Along with DA fifth-graders Stella Edwards, Beckett Moylan and McKenzie Graves, Giulia said she’s enjoyed getting to know girls from around the Bull City.
“We just really support each other and understand the need to stick together,” she explained. “We support each person’s talent and what they like to do.”
“We have a girl in the group named Yaz, and she’s in her church choir, and we’re making plans to go see her sing,” Stella added. “I play lacrosse, and we’re making plans for everybody to come see a game in the spring.”
StrongHER TogetHER’s first cohort of students was nominated this spring, and the program kicked off in the summer with a get-to-know-you picnic, followed by a week-long summer camp based at DA. In camp, the girls worked on craft and science projects, made a trip to Pelican’s SnoBalls, played games and, most importantly, formed the basis of the friendships that have become so cherished.
Donoghue wasn’t aware that two of the girls would be playing violin in a Kidznotes concert on the Thursday of camp until they came to her the day before and expressed concern about having to miss out on the fun of camp.
“So we put all of the other girls on the bus and took them to the concert and surprised these two girls who are part of our group,” Donoghue said. “And when I saw that happen, when I saw how the girls in the audience really got it, that it meant something that they were there, and how the girls who were performing reacted — that they weren’t missing camp because the camp came to them — I think that was for me, almost a birthday moment of the program. It really let us see that there was something there.”
That “something” has continued to blossom this fall, as the girls have gotten together every few weeks — from watching the girl-power documentary Step, to noshing on Nana Taco and decorating pumpkins in the park, to making care packages for a girls organization in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Getting the girls together — there are 15 in StrongHER TogetHER’s inaugural cohort — requires the use of a DA bus, and driving that bus is a man with a perpetual smile on his face: DA maintenance team member Mac McDonald.
“When we get together on a Saturday, we take up his whole day. The girls absolutely love him,” Donoghue said of McDonald, known affectionately as Big Mac. “I told him, thank you so much, Big Mac, you’re taking five hours out of your weekend, and you’re hanging out with a bunch of 10-year-olds, and they’re putting headbands on your head. And he says, well, I can’t let the babies down. And that’s Big Mac in a nutshell.”
In addition to McDonald and co-founders Donoghue and Ramiah, several other members of the DA community have lent their time to making StrongHER TogetHER a reality, including board members Dan Gilson, director of DA’s Summer Programs and Extended Day, and Dr. Cindy Moore, a DA learning specialist.
The plan is for the StrongHER TogetHER girls to continue hanging out and supporting one another through their high school graduation, with a new cohort of about 15 rising fifth-graders added to the program each spring.
“When I first heard about it, I thought, that’s great, girls from all different walks of life coming together to learn from one another, which absolutely happens,” Moore said. “But the bigger message is it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. It’s more about the girl piece and the fact that everybody needs their people. It has been nice to see them bond over that. The message is, you need to support each other, so now go support each other — and they’re trying to do that.”