This May, Maria Francisco graduated from East Ridge High School as a confident and well-spoken young woman. To look at her today, you wouldn’t know that she used to struggle with an overwhelming shyness that held her back from making friends and standing up for herself. That’s the difference you have made for Maria—giving her the opportunity to participate in Girls Inc. programming that has helped her develop her own voice.
I first met Maria last May during Girls Inc.’s Emma Wheeler Health Careers Academy when I was interning at Girls Inc. Even after just one meeting, I remember Maria vividly: As the other girls sang radio top 40 together and choreographed new dance moves, Maria sat in the corner by herself, watching those around her have fun. Although she was encouraged to speak up by staff, Maria needed more time than most to feel comfortable with her own voice.
At Girls Inc., this kind of transformation is no surprise: As with all Girls Inc. programs, a major component of the Women’s History Project (WHP) is public speaking. In addition to learning about women’s history in the U.S. and the traits of powerful female leaders, WHP culminates with an annual event: the UnBought & UnBossed Awards. Each girl in the program must interview their honoree’s family, friends, and work colleagues, prepare a speech, and deliver that speech to an audience. This year’s sold-out event was the biggest to date, with over 500 guests in attendance. Maria’s skills and confidence were put to the ultimate test at the awards, and she excelled beyond her wildest dreams.
“When I think about my speech at the UnBought & UnBossed Awards this year, I am very proud of myself. Walking up on stage, I was so nervous. But I told myself to take a breath, calm down, and just go on. I thought I was going to pass out for just a second, but as I went on I felt good about it. I felt proud of myself. That was the first time I had talked in front of people like that, and there were so many people!”
Maria’s speech about her honoree, Gladys Pineda-Loher, was moving, funny at times, and met with applause. All of this is remarkable on its own, but even more surprising is that English is Maria’s third language.
Part of the Women’s History Project and the UnBought & UnBossed Awards is promoting a mentoring relationship between the honoree and her girl: “I still talk to Gladys today, and since she works at Chattanooga State, I plan to volunteer with her. Gladys is so nice, and she has inspired me in everything. She inspires me as a Hispanic woman because she is helping her culture in this community.”
Maria plans to attend Chattanooga State Community College this fall: “I want to start at a small school instead of going to a big one so I can figure out what it’s all about and what exactly it is that I want to do.” In high school, Maria’s favorite subjects were biology and psychology.
I want to help teenagers make good decisions and help heal their minds.”
Maria’s advice to girls in high school: “Stay strong, never give up, never quit. The past 2-3 years I have been through a lot, and school was really difficult for me. I could barely pay attention. I didn’t even know who I was until something in me finally made me realize I could do it. I can make it. I can be strong. I didn’t give up.”
“My dad used to say ‘Stay in school no matter what,’ and that was important to me because he never went to school. He used to sit down with us and tell us to just try because he wanted a better future for us, me and my brother. Now that I’m in foster care, there are people helping me to stay in school and not give up.”
“I just remind myself that finishing high school is a good opportunity for me to have a good life. I’m telling this to my brother and friends at school because they’re thinking about giving up and not trying as hard. I want to tell others that if I can do it, you can, too.”
By: Meagan Frey, Associate Director of Advancement
Published: May 29, 2014