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Small grant helps ‘kids worth investing in’

Operation Cinderella of the Fox Valley has learned through its free prom event that a nice gown, a hairdo, makeup and feeling special even for one day does a lot for the self-esteem of girls who – because of low family income, poor performance in school or social awkwardness – just don’t feel like they fit in.

The nonprofit’s second “Unstoppable Girls’ Empowerment Conference” last fall at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center paired self-esteem with a sense of purpose, with the help of a $2,500 Community Education grant. It helped to pay for strong speakers and reminder gifts for the girls.

Mary Linden, the group’s board president, said the Community Foundation and is supporters should always remember that a small grant makes a big difference for a small organization.

The project accomplished these objectives:

  • Guidance counselors at eight area schools selected participants thought to be at-risk or marginalized students.
  • 200 students, 28 counselors or social workers and 10 community volunteers attended.
  • The group included 40% minorities.
  • Many students who identified as LGBTQ took part.
  • 100% of girls responding said they got something positive out of the event.
  • 100% said they would attend again.

“It was just an amazing day,” Linden said. “It’s investing in kids worth investing in.”

Discussion topics included bullying, hope, suicide and writing their own story.

Following the conference, one girl told her school counselor that she left feeling positive, happy inside and good about herself. The mother of another said the day was challenging for her daughter, but the girl left feeling better about herself and that she had overcome some of her demons.

Another counselor reported that one of her students, who struggles with anxiety and finding her place in the world, came back recharged and is creating a series of videos about self-confidence.

Linden gives a lot of the credit for the impact the conference had to keynote speaker Tasha Schuh, a former athlete and performer who fell off of the stage during a high school production of “The Wizard of Oz” and became a paraplegic. She recalled being told she would never walk again and that her paralyzed diaphragm would prevent her from singing. As she wrapped up her message about what she can still accomplish by never giving up, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” started to play and Schuh sang it in defiance of the medical predictions.

The response from the young audience was tears and a standing ovation.

“It was really a powerful moment,” Linden said.

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