It was a brutally cold morning when I met with my friend Elizabeth Mueller for a cup of tea at the library. As we chatted, warming our hands around our tea cups, one thing was clear: Elizabeth’s passion for her work with PEARLS for Teen Girls, Inc. is not only her dream job but her calling. It called to her even as she was on vacation in Costa Rica, where she took the day to complete and send the job application! She hasn’t looked back since, and she now serves as the College and Career Readiness Coordinator.
Her professional background in higher education, especially in career development and community engagement, made her the ideal candidate. She has a BA from UW-Madison and a Master’s in Educational Policy and Leadership from Marquette University. She is passionate about increasing educational access and connecting young people with the resources and opportunities to achieve their educational, personal, and career goals.
One of the first things she said to me was how she is motivated and inspired by her colleagues, especially the CEO of PEARLS, Danae Davis. In Elizabeth’s words, Danae is a leader who sees the big picture and yet knows the names of every PEARLS girl who walks through their doors.
PEARLS was the brain child of a local entrepreneur and Executive Coach, Colleen Fitzgerald, and it started as a volunteer effort in 1993. The primary focus of the group was to offer central city girls who were facing tremendous challenges the opportunity to “believe in their inherent beauty, power and potential.” PEARLS provides the girls with a place to speak honestly, to articulate their dreams, and to create pathways to transform their lives with confidence.
PEARLS dares them to dream big and empowers them to build strong communities by living the PEARLS values: Personal responsibility, Empathy, Awareness, Respect, Leadership, and Support. With the leadership compass (loving Myself, Building Relationships with Others, Striving to Achieve, Believing the Sky is the Limit, and Helping Hands in the Community) as a guide, the girls develop the necessary skills to be successful, confident, and positive members of their communities.
Elizabeth was able to connect me with one of the PEARLS girls, and I was delighted to meet Marquetta Guilmore, a junior at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, WI. The first thing that I noticed was the smile that lit up her eyes as she talked about her family. She is the youngest of eight sisters and two brothers. By her own admission, she was spoiled by her parents and got everything she wanted until her father passed away when she was eight. It was a very difficult time for her family, and she began to “act out” until she became a part of PEARLS in middle school.
PEARLS grounded her and provided her with much needed support to help her blossom into the young adult she is today. Marquetta loves sports (and is especially good at tennis), she’s the captain of her high school cheerleading team, and she loves to debate and write stories about people. Tongue-in-cheek, she did tell me that she also loves to shop! She has been deeply inspired by the book Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher, and she works as a Teen Facilitator at PEARLS.
Along with Adult Program Coordinators, Marquetta facilitates group activities and leads discussion circles for middle school groups. She leads by example to help the middle school girls set, track, and reach their goals. She is motivated by her mentors at PEARLS, who help her to explore her talents, and by her boyfriend’s mother, who encourages her to reflect on her weaknesses so that she can transform them into a positive force. She is especially motivated by her “Big Sister,” a lawyer who balances work and family admirably.
Marquetta wants to be a lawyer and give back to her community. She asked me softly, “What good is money if one is not connected to one’s community?” She went on to say that one of her challenges is to live in the moment and to not always look toward and plan for the future.
That is when it struck me that PEARLS not only motivates girls to plan for and imagine their futures, but it creates space for them to have fun, be teenagers, and enjoy the present moment.