U.Va.'s Young Women Leaders Program reaches 20th anniversary

Mentoring program looks to expand its local and global presence

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Second-year Curry student Nicole Baker (right) poses with her Young Women Leaders Program little sister.

Courtesy Nicole Baker

In the 20 years of its existence, the University’s Young Women Leaders Program has established itself in the Charlottesville community and beyond as a source of empowerment and friendship for big and little sister participants. 

As a joint effort between the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center and the Curry School of Education, YWLP matches middle school girls possessing leadership potential with University students, who act as "big sisters" and mentors in group and individual settings.

Edith “Winx” Lawrence, a professor in the Curry School, cofounded the program two decades ago and remains director of the program. 

“[YWLP] is designed to pair college women with middle school girls for a year of mentoring focused on enhancing leadership skills and self-esteem for both ages,” Lawrence said. “Our curriculum focuses on activities that increases the girls’ sense of themselves [and] makes them feel confident, connected to important others and able to make important decisions about their lives.”

YWLP Mentoring Coordinator Sarah Jenkins does the matching and recruiting for the program, which draws students from four local middle schools — Buford, Burley, Sutherland and Jouett middle schools. 

“We rely pretty heavily on the guidance counselors at those schools to select girls who would benefit from the program and show emerging leadership potential — girls that could use the support of having a big sister,” Jenkins said. “At each of the schools, we have a group for seventh and a group for eighth grade girls, so the girls get group mentoring with their peer[s] and big sisters, along with individual mentoring with their big sisters in a separate time with them.”  

Since the program is year-long, big sisters participate in an associated Curry class that correlates with the program. Learning initiatives, such as a fall service event, are also built into the curriculum for both big and little sisters.     

“We just completed the food drives,” Lawrence said. “The girls worked with their big sisters to understand the issues of hunger, not only around the world but also in our own community … Then they each worked on how to respectfully ask folks to donate, and they did that Sunday and got a lot of items for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.”

Jenkins said that this past Sunday, the girls collected 1,650 items for the food bank.

“It was a great success — the big and little sisters had a great time and it’s always good to see people giving back to the community,” Jenkins said. “The food bank is our number one service project as a group, and we encourage the girls to create their own service project in the spring.”

YWLP has 48 local matches this year and normally spans between 50 and 60 matches per year in the Charlottesville area. Lawrence said YWLP has been implemented in other regions nationally and also serves girls in Cameroon and Ecuador. 

“[YWLP] has expanded, so we have about 10 national sister sites and then also international sister sites, so we serve about 500 girls [from 12 schools] in Cameroon, and we just had a group of women from Nigeria learning how to start a program at their university,” Lawrence said. “We have a sister site in Ecuador [where] … they serve about 20 girls per year.”

Second-year Curry student Nicole Baker has participated in YWLP during both of her years at the University and is on a team working to implement the YWLP program in Nigeria. 

“I’m … a member of the Jefferson Public Research Team, where we are working to develop a YWLP program in Nigeria,” Baker said. “We decided to bring the big sisters and founders of the YWLP here … That was a very interesting way to see how to develop a program in another country and work remotely while bringing the big sisters here to train at our program at U.Va.”

In addition to growing nationally and globally, Jenkins said YWLP continues to seek recruiting more big and little sisters in Charlottesville. 

“We rely on current big sisters to recruit friends who might be good big sisters,” Jenkins said. “With the Curry School, we get a lot of interest from students who are in the [Youth & Social Innovation] major … We are also going into more classes and student organizations on Grounds to drum up more recruitment outside of those circles.”

Baker said she hopes YWLP will continue to grow locally and seek out a diversity of educational backgrounds among big sisters in the future. 

“We have a wide variety of sisters coming from different educational backgrounds, but it would be great to see [YWLP] as a much more diverse program, even outside Curry students,” Baker said. “I think it would be a wonderful thing if YWLP was more widely known and publicized in our Charlottesville community because the girls we are mentoring are from the community, and it’s definitely such an important bond to have between the University and the residents that live here.”

Lawrence said learning from the big and little sisters and her fellow program administrators has been a rewarding process over the past 20 years and that she is excited for the future. 

“I learn a lot from the middle schoolers, the college women and the other faculty members,” Lawrence said. “This is our 20th anniversary, so we are spending time looking at what we've achieved and also looking to see how it can be sustained for the next 20 years.”

Correction: This article previously mistakenly said the food drive from this past weekend collected $1,650 worth of donations for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. This article has been updated to note that the drive actually collected 1,650 items. 

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