“I’m valuable. I’m worthy. I’m beautiful. And that’s what I believe about me.”
They’re words of affirmation. Of empowerment. Of what’s possible.
They’re also the core message behind Lessons for Life, a nonprofit serving middle school girls in Little Rock, Arkansas. Each lunchtime mentoring session begins and closes with the statements proudly said in unison.
“You never would’ve thought I’d be doing something like this,” laughs Alexis Ware, Lessons for Life’s founder. Ware, a self-admitted class clown during childhood, knows firsthand the life-changing difference a mentor can make.
“For me, it was a music teacher in elementary school, an art teacher in middle school and my basketball coach in high school,” reflects Ware. “I was disruptive in class, making people laugh all the time. And then I discovered there were consequences academically in high school. That was a turning point for me.”
Her coach’s guidance paid off. Ware earned a full basketball scholarship.
“Texas Tech took me under their wing; they really took a chance on me,” she said.
Today, Ware is taking that same chance on hundreds of youth.
In addition to the mentoring program which focuses exclusively on empowering pre-teen girls, Lessons for Life serves all youth through its motivational speaking, coaching and counseling initiatives.
It’s that mentoring component that attracted Tanya Bonham Scott and her Regions Bank colleagues, Shalonda Tillman and Amy Baker. They volunteer with Lessons for Life each week.
“There are pockets of girls who never receive support,” said Bonham Scott, manager of Regions’ Chenal Promenade branch in Little Rock and a Lessons for Life Board member. “There’s a lot of need for the extra attention one-to-one mentoring provides.”
Amy Baker, a Financial Relationship Consultant at the Little Rock Main branch, began mentoring in 2019.
“Young girls go through so much during their teen years. They’re experiencing so many emotions, which sometimes results in them making decisions that are not healthy for their future,” said Baker. “One of the most important parts of Lessons for Life is that it gives the girls an outlet to talk to someone they can trust without being judged.”
Again, Ware never expected to be running a nonprofit. Yes, she had traveled the world with Athletes in Action’s Women’s Basketball Team. She was a Kids Across America Women’s Camp Director. And she worked with a ministry reaching underserved areas. But it took time for her to recognize she had the background, the leadership skills and the vision to launch a successful nonprofit meeting other, unmet needs.
“I was being molded for this moment,” she realized, reflecting on how her friends saw her own potential before she did.
Lessons for Life’s mentoring program began with just 16 girls. The budget and volunteer pool were also small. Ware was – and remains – the only staff person.
“Scary, scary, scary,” said Ware, thinking back to those early days. But her faith kept her going.
The number of girls and mentors steadily grew.
Today, the Lessons for Life site based at Henderson Middle School serves 92 girls.
“I didn’t have to go out and recruit,” said Ware. “It was a blessing.”
Bonham Scott learned about Lessons for Life through word-of-mouth.
“I was hooked immediately,” she said. “The energy of the girls. Watching the growth in their confidence levels. They go from being a shy group not really wanting to share in a room full of adults to laughing and talking.”
Lessons for Life has created a safe space where girls can be themselves and tackle tough topics. Purity and healthy relationships. Personal boundaries. Body image and hygiene. Conflict resolution. Nothing is off limits.
“Social media is the number-one issue the girls face,” said Ware. “Bullying and fighting are things we talk about.”
They also talk about the future and setting goals.
“We ask them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up? What are your strengths and talents?’” said Bonham Scott. “Maybe no one has ever asked them that. They all just want to feel like someone cares. They need empowerment constantly. In this moment. Before they’re adults. They need someone to tell them, ‘You are great at this.’”
Focusing on the future also includes college visits. Mentors travel with their mentees to the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to see dormitories, meet students and hear from professors. It empowers the girls to see themselves there one day.
Ware is grateful for the time mentors invest.
“They bring so much value to what we do,” she said. “They teach our girls what commitment looks like. It paints a beautiful picture to have a diverse group of mentors involved.”
Lynn Wright, Regions Bank Market Executive for Little Rock, shares Ware’s gratitude for the volunteerism of Bonham Scott, Baker and Tillman.
“The amount of time Tanya, Amy and Shalonda commit to providing guidance to the young women in this program and making lives better is inspirational to all of us,” said Wright. “They are walking examples of what it means to live your values. We are honored by how they represent our team.”
Ware also observes the benefits mentors gain.
“The volunteers learn a lot too,” she said. “They think they’re going to teach them; but the girls are going to teach them, too.”
Ware and the mentors look forward to reconnecting in person with the girls after COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed. They recently delivered restaurant meals to the girls’ homes and enjoyed porch visits to observe social distancing guidelines. Lessons for Life is also providing a special keepsake to the eighth-grade girls following the cancellation of their annual awards banquet due to the pandemic.
“It was really tough not to be able to say goodbye,” said Bonham Scott, following school closings in March. “They miss their friends; they miss the program.”
The one thing they have no matter what? A constant belief of just how valuable, worthy and beautiful they are, thanks to Lessons for Life.