LEAD Girls of North Carolina, a program for at-risk preteen girls, is expanding into two more Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools in January.
During a designated time in the school day, program facilitators will visit Paisley Magnet School and Philo-Hill Magnet Academy to work with students.
The curriculum includes lessons on positive self-talk and conflict resolution. Participants also take trips to visit local colleges, do STEM activities, and meet Black female entrepreneurs.
Joy Thomas founded the organization seven years ago, inspired in part, by her own experience in middle school.
She made it through that tough time with the support of her family. But as a woman of color and a first-generation college graduate, she says her life could have taken a very different path — especially in Winston-Salem.
A 2015 Harvard study revealed that Forsyth County is among the worst counties in America in helping poor children move up the income ladder.
“If you grow up in 27105, you are destined to grow up and die in poverty. And I just believe that everybody deserves a chance to thrive,” Thomas said. “I mean, no matter what your skin tone looks like. No matter if you grow up in another zip code. Like you know, how can we continue to move forward knowing that people right in the next zip code, don't have a fighting chance?”
As an adult, she says she realized how crucial it is for young girls, especially girls of color from low-income families, to have academic and emotional support. Thomas says a big part of the program is creating a safe, culturally-affirming environment for the participants.
LEAD Girls currently works within six district Title 1 schools, meaning children from low-income families make up at least 40% of enrollment. According to LEAD’s impact report from 2021, the program served close to 300 girls, 98% of whom were either Black, Hispanic, or Native American.
“We've been very intentional about supporting schools that truly need the resources,” Thomas said. “I mean, every school has their needs, but really trying to think about the demographics we serve, and how do we make a greater impact with underrepresented girls here in our community?”
Philo-Hill Principal Franchesca Gantt says she thinks the program will be a game changer for the girls at her school.
“I think a big thing is just really navigating life at this very, very crucial stage. And this is my 21st year in middle school education,” Gantt said. “So I think that if we don't grab them now, there’s a chance that we might lose them when it comes to high school. And I'm not in the business of losing anything."
That’s why Thomas says it’s critical to start giving girls the skills they need to make positive decisions early on. Those skills include communicating with authority figures, self-awareness, coping with stress, navigating societal pressures and learning how to give back to the community.