KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Probably dozens of teenage girls like Marie Sanders are out there, not expecting help, maybe even thinking they don’t deserve it.
But help is coming, whether girls in the Kansas City School District are ready for it or not.
The volunteers in a local nonprofit called Awesome Ambitions are persistent, and Sanders is sure girls like her will be better for it.
Time was when the 17-year-old senior at Central High School was counting all the reasons that success was out of her reach. Now she’s counting potential college choices.
“Xavier University, Jackson State (University), the University of Alabama,” she said.
When she had started high school in the ninth grade, her life at home and in school was unstable, Sanders said.
“I always wanted to go to college, but I didn’t think it was possible. It was a dream, not a reality.”
But mentors with Awesome Ambitions pushed her. Helped her. Opened her mind to possibilities.
“You don’t let circumstances determine your fate,” she said.
Now she’s planning to study health sciences and biochemistry in college.
For most of its 15 years, the organization tried to make its way as a monthly mentoring program with occasional conferences working with ninth-grade girls in the Kansas City district.
“But we knew we needed more time with them,” said Awesome Ambitions executive director Kathy Hardee.
So they went after it.
In the past three years, Awesome Ambitions, which now serves 285 girls, started carrying out its program with girls all through high school, with this year’s seniors being the first to “graduate” with the program.
And volunteers spent the summer gearing up to promote new monthly Saturday sessions.
Some 85 girls and 30 parents came to the first Saturday event in September, an astonishing number to volunteers who had seen previous attempts at weekend programs fail to launch for lack of participation.
It’s not easy getting teenagers or their parents to give up most of a Saturday, said Angela Curry, a former Kansas City Star columnist who founded the program along with KSHB-TV anchorwoman Cynthia Newsome.
The selling points in attracting so many girls were evident recently when some of the mentors met with Central students and prepared them for all the programs coming up.
The program, which operates its scant budget on grants from the Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City and other donations, is paying for bus service to its Saturday events. It’s paying for breakfast and lunch. Parents whose daughters make it regularly to the school and Saturday events will get a $50 gas card.
In return, the girls are getting counseling on healthy relationships. They’re learning how to protect themselves. Tutors will be on hand to help with any problems in their academics.
“Be sure to bring your progress reports,” Curry shouted to the girls at Central.
This year, graduating seniors in the Kansas City School District will have to complete Capstone projects, which are individual research projects that include a public presentation in front of a district panel. Awesome Ambitions will help them with that.
There will be job shadowing opportunities. Health screenings. Opportunities for college tours, including a tour of historically Black colleges and universities.
The list goes on. Help getting scholarships. Help with interviewing and presentation skills. Preparation for ACT and SAT college entrance exams. Help with summer jobs.
This was the message that Awesome Ambitions board members relayed to the households of the 285 girls this summer when they split up the phone list and called them one by one.
And all of them, from the director to the mentors, are volunteers, Hardee said. More than 80 in all.
For years, many of them have carried on, Curry said, struggling through all the changes within the school district, forever trying to get the attention of girls, many of whom didn’t really imagine themselves becoming adults.
When they saw the girls arriving by the dozens for the first Saturday program, the program’s leaders sensed that Awesome Ambitions might be approaching the greater impact that it has long craved.
“We really think this will be the turning point,” Curry said.
Central senior Krystalyn Tolefree, 17, expects that the organization’s greater ambitions will take hold.
Look at what it’s done for her, she said. She was a shy freshman at Westport High School when Awesome Ambitions scooped her up.
“They help us where we’re weak,” she said. “They help us empower each other.”
She has stood before groups of people, making presentations. Her confidence is high. And she’s planning to enroll at the University of Missouri in Columbia or the University of Missouri-Kansas City next fall, aiming to be a pediatrician.
Or a real estate agent.
However she goes, she said, she expects to be prepared.