On Saturday, the nonprofit I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc. hosted its annual Pink Pajama Jam, by all measures the biggest slumber party eyes have ever seen.
Try and imagine mothers and daughters dressed in their best pink jammies, talking into the night about the things that matter most to them, things that have changed and will change their lives.
They have been meeting like this now for years, and I’m told it’s fun and fantastic. If you have a sister circle that gathers on a regular basis, that might not surprise you. When women gather, a kind of collective courage is generated to stand tall, try new things, be proud of your own beautiful self.
For 14 years, that’s been Tina Woodard’s and Zenobia Edwards’ sole mission — to show girls and women they are Brave. Energetic. Assertive. Unique. Tenacious. Important. Fabulous. Unequaled. And Loved.
Woodard, a Buford mother of two, and Edwards, a Florence, S.C., mother, are sisters and the offspring of lifetime educators, who talked constantly about academics, career pathways and college options.
And so growing up, their South Carolina home was always filled with children, some who were there for tutoring, some heading to athletic events and others just because it provided a safe haven.
After graduating from high school and earning a biology degree from Wofford College in 1990, Zenobia would follow their parents into the classroom; and though Tina would earn an industrial engineering degree from Clemson and begin a career in business, teaching was also a part of her DNA.
“I would return to my high school and deliver presentations on goal setting and how to be successful in school,” she said.
As a teacher and administrator, Zenobia worked with students from a variety of backgrounds. When she became principal of an alternative education program in the Pee Dee area of South Carolina, she made an intriguing observation.
“As I worked with students and parents, I began to notice the irony of what they would say versus what they would do,” Zenobia said. “They would talk about graduation or promotion, but then turn right around and make life choices that seemed to go in the opposite direction.”
Tina had a similar experience one night during a discussion about self-esteem with a group of teens at her church. She pulled out a mirror, passed it around to the 20 or so middle and high schoolers and asked, “How many of you like what you see?”
“I expected all of them to raise their hands,” Tina said. “To my dismay, not one raised their hands.”
When asked to make a list of things they’d change about themselves, she said, “I was heartbroken. The things they wanted to change were things their mothers had told them, so we had two problems — their own self-image and their mothers.”
Ironically, both sisters saw what none of their students could: potential.
They knew then that they needed to do something more to support these young people, to help them realize what was great about themselves and help them build on that.
With that, the sisters realized a greater purpose for their lives. They began having deep conversations about their observations. They talked regularly about kids’ questionable self-perception, lack of confidence and exposure, most notably among girls.
That singular moment marked the birth of I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc. (iambeautiful.org).
In the spring of 2004, Zenobia decided to host a group of female middle and high school students on a college campus in South Carolina for a daylong conference. She invited speakers who talked to them about personal hygiene, career choices, resiliency, and the importance of setting and pursuing goals.
The conference was such a success that the sisters decided to host a similar one in Georgia and began laying the groundwork for launching a nonprofit of the same name to take the B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. message to girls and women around the world.
“We didn’t want it to be a business,” Tina said. “We just wanted to help as many girls as we could.”
In September 2004, I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc. received nonprofit status. In May 2005, Tina hosted a brunch with a group of girlfriends to share their vision — to reach 10,000 girls by 2010.
All 12 women signed and weeks later helped host the first official I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc. conference at the Centerville Community Center in Snellville. Nearly 100 girls and women, ages 6 to 84, attended from South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.
When it was over, participants didn’t want to leave. Tina and Zenobia wondered, could they do it again? Could they extend it beyond one day?
Yes, they could.
Today, I am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc. offers girls a place to meet every other week during the school year and summer. It hosts a leadership program that runs concurrently with the school year, offers one-on-one mentoring as needed and holds special events like Saturday’s pajama retreat.
After many years of hard work, stops and starts, hills and valleys, I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc., thanks to a newly minted partnership with Lane Bryant, is going national.
According to Lane Bryant’s marketing director, Kathy Quickert, when the company decided to reintroduce the #ImNoAngel campaign last fall, it was important to add a charitable component to the initiative.
I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc., she said, was the perfect fit.
“I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc. stands for many of the ideals we convey through our national advertising campaigns: empowerment of women, while defining what strong, beautiful women look like,” Quickert said. “We’re honored to have had the chance to support I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc., contributing funds to help more girls and women to become stronger and more confident leaders.”
In September, the retailer launched a fundraising campaign and will match all online donations up to $100,000 made to the nonprofit through Feb. 28.
The money will be used to expand I Am B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. Inc. across Georgia and to other states.
“We knew there had to be other people with ample resources who cared about supporting self-esteem and leadership for girls and women. We knew if we could capture the attention of the right people or corporations, they may be willing to sponsor our efforts,” Tina said. “We didn’t know how, and we didn’t know when, but we believed it would happen and it did.”
And it couldn’t have happened at a better time in our nation or for a better cause — empowering women and girls.
Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.