Standing Strong

A new program through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa teaches tween girls how to navigate the challenges in their lives.

From left: A’Breeyah Rojas, A’Leeyah Rojas, Renee Hardman and Gabby Laurie at a recent I Am Enough Saturday session. The participants “need a venue where they can just talk and not be judged,” Hardman says. 

Writer: Jane Burns
Photographer: Janae Gray

As books go, Grace Byers’ “I Am Enough” is pretty simple—just a line or two or an illustration on each of its 32 pages. 

But simple and profound can sometimes be the same thing, and such is the case with the book that inspired a new program at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa. I Am Enough, the program, has a mission to make an impact on young girls’ lives by giving them the tools to build self-esteem, dream big and learn how to make those dreams a reality. 

Thirty girls ages 9-12 who are already involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program take part in I Am Enough, too, and together they learn to navigate the challenges in their lives. The obstacles might be new, such as dealing with hurtful comments on social media. Or painful ones like being called a racial slur, something many girls bring up throughout the sessions. 

“These girls are struggling,” says Renee Hardman, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “They need a venue where they can just talk and not be judged. It’s cathartic sometimes just to be heard.” 

The program’s powerful tool is the I Am Enough Champions–30 female community leaders who share their stories and the challenges they faced to succeed. 

“I’d say I took the stairways to get where I am, not the elevator. It took a while,” says Miriam Lewis, chief inclusion officer at Principal Financial Group. “Now, with the other women in the program, I can ride the elevator down and bring the girls back up with us and show them the way.” 

One Saturday a month, three Champions lead a session on topics such as overcoming adversity, understanding your worth or dealing with conflict. The girls have homework and are expected to speak at meetings. While led by the Champions, the curriculum is designed by Big Brothers Big Sisters staff and includes surveying the girls to gauge their self-esteem. 

“We asked if they could name one thing they liked about themselves,” Hardman says. “Some girls could not name one thing. Not one.” 

Nine-year-old A’Leeyah Rojas, who participates in the I Am Enough program, hopes to become a ballerina or teacher when she grows up. She also loves music—her favorite musician is English singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran. In addition, she enjoys playing soccer and says she’s excited that her younger brother recently learned to walk. Her hope for the future? To “live my own life.”

Compassion and Support
The program was Hardman’s idea after she saw “I Am Enough” while at a bookstore looking for a gift. The beautiful illustrations caught her eye but so did the message: words of compassion for all a child is and can be, and how children can appreciate and support each other. It brought Hardman to tears right in the bookstore. 

“When I went to buy the book, I said to the woman I was buying it from, ‘I don’t know why this book made me so emotional,’” Hardman says. “She said, ‘You must have tapped into a time in your life when you had self-doubt’ and I thought maybe so.” 

Hardman grew up in a single-parent home and worked three jobs to pay for college, often questioning herself along the way. She thought a program built around a simple message of “I am enough” could help girls avoid those same self-doubts as they navigated the world. She invited potential Champions to participate, promising they would just need to commit a few hours for the year–one presentation with two other women. Nearly everyone said yes. 

“When Renee calls, it’s not yes or no,” Lewis says. “It’s ‘What time do you need me?’” 

The mission resonated with another Champion, Marta Codina, region bank president at Wells Fargo. Codina spoke to the girls about her background as an immigrant and Cuban refugee and growing up on public assistance. 

“These girls probably look at us and think, ‘Oh, you’re this executive, you don’t really get me,’” Codina says. “But by sharing our own personal stories and how we overcame obstacles and continue to overcome them, it’s extraordinary to see how these girls start opening up and sharing.”

Overcoming Challenges
They’ve shared more as the program, which began last September, has moved forward. A session about overcoming challenges was particularly emotional, Hardman says. One girl spoke of feeling conflicted when her parents fight and wanted to know how to deal with it because she loves them both. Another spoke of handling the fear of walking home from school alone for the first time because her brother was sick. One girl dealing with a racial slur embraced the tactics suggested by Champions and the other girls to deal with it better–count to 10, learn to pause, and realize those using the slur are just trying to get her in trouble. 

Hardman sees a difference. “She said, ‘I’m not going to let it bother me because I am not what they are saying. I’m not going to let them steal my joy,’” Hardman adds. 

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life but this is one of the most intrinsically rewarding things I’ve ever done,” she says. 

Champions include women in law, law enforcement, the corporate world, higher education and health care. Despite making a sole one-session commitment, Champions return to spend time with the girls and watch their progress. 

Lewis has attended all but one session, living out her favorite words in the book that inspired everything: And in the end, we are right here to live a life of love, not fear, to help each other when it’s tough, to say together: I am enough. 

“That’s why we’re here,” Lewis says. “This is the work that we’re doing.”

More Information: Find details on the website, bbbsia.org, on how to become a Big Brother or Big Sister. If you’re interested in getting involved with the I Am Enough program, contact Renee Hardman at rhardman@bbbsia.org.

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