Mentor program shows love
BY KIM GRIZZARD
The Daily Reflector
Sunday, May 13, 2018
For three boys, Liz Liles, a Rocky Mount native, is Mom. But there are 300 girls she calls daughters.
They are grade-schoolers and teens, shy and outgoing, rowdy and ladylike, broken and beautiful. To Liles, they are all Daughters of Worth.
That is the name of the nonprofit organization she founded in 2015, when this single mom working to raise young men decided she also would commit herself to giving guidance to girls.
“They are precious. They are valuable,” Liles, 37, said of the girls she serves. “... There were so many girls who simply did not know what they were even worth.”
Growing up in eastern North Carolina, Liles knew what it was to struggle with self-esteem. Although her parents showered her with affection, she battled a sense of rejection. Adopted as an infant, Liles questioned how she could be worth much at all if her birth mother had simply given her away.
“I can remember being about 6 or 7 years old and having the thought go through my mind of why didn’t she love me enough to keep me, or why was I not good enough?” Liles said.
“A lot of that deep-rooted insecurity stays with you, and it really begins to shape the way that you see the world,” she said. “... Unless you really heal from those wounds, they just go with you.”
Some of those old hurts came with Liles when she moved with her sons to Greenville five years ago. The former teacher had endured the failure of her marriage of nearly 13 years, and she was having to start over.
She accepted a job as a program director for The Salvation Army, in part because leading the organization’s children’s programs would allow her to support her family and spend time with her boys, who took part in many of the activities. But Liles discovered that the girls who showed up for those events needed a whole different level of support.
Though she had worked with children before at a Christian camp and after-school program, Liles was stunned by some of the stories she heard. One girl confided that she had been gang-raped in broad daylight. Another slept with a knife under her pillow to protect herself.
“That really opened my eyes to the needs that are here,” she said. “We don’t realize the depth of the need that’s in our own back yard.”
There was one girl who had been living in a car with her mother for a year and a half. Others told of going home to places with no electricity or food.
Liles remembers asking the girls to tell her where they turned for help when they were hungry or needed clean clothes and a shower.
“They could not point to anybody,” she said. “So the fact that there were so many girls with so many stories, I felt like it was my responsibility. If I’d been placed in a position where I can serve these girls, then who am I to turn my back?”
Liles had been praying for more than a decade that God would make her life count. The chance to help these girls seemed like an answer to that prayer.
She knew she did not have the financial resources to lift the girls out of poverty. But she believed that she and other women could enrich them in other ways by helping them see that they could transcend their circumstances.
“They have all these things that they cannot control in their own lives,” Liles said, “so we’re looking at those things that they can control.”
Beginning with 12 middle school girls, Daughters of Worth mentored girls in areas such as character education, goal setting, academic achievement, money management and healthy relationships.
The first GLAM (Girls Living A Mission) group started with some outings to places like nearby Washington, N.C., where Liles became executive director of The Blind Center after leaving her job at The Salvation Army. Though it is only a 20- or 30-minute drive from Pitt County, some of the girls had never been.
Daughters of Worth also introduced the girls to the idea of serving their community with projects helping organizations such as Community Crossroads Center, Greenville’s homeless shelter.
“We try to give them experiences they may not have had outside the group,” said volunteer Alyssa Hardee, a school counselor at Elmhurst Elementary, one of three locations hosting GLAM Girl groups.
“I guess my experience of being a school counselor, seeing what some girls are up against, I just see so many of them struggling with not having positive interactions or role models,” Hardee said. “I just thought it was really important to be someone who could make a difference.”
Since its inception, GLAM Girls has grown from serving a dozen girls to about 90 participants, including girls at two locations of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Plain.
At a recent meeting at the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Jack Minges Unit, GLAM Girls hosted Tiffany Kessler of Greenville, who at age 13 wrote a children’s book about self-acceptance. Liles used the occasion to talk with girls about issues ranging from dealing with bullies to sharing their gifts with others.
“I like how Ms. Liz tells us how beautiful we are and how smart we are,” participant Jasira Coward said.
Samari Smallwood said GLAM Girls has helped her to feel more confident.
“She encourages us to accept yourself and to know that (you can) just be yourself,” Samari said. “When I get back to school, I can use it. (There is) this girl who gets picked on all the time. Some girls just call her ugly … so I try to help her.”
Within the next school year, Daughters of Worth plans to add GLAM Girls groups at Ayden Elementary and two schools in Beaufort County, Northeast and John Small elementary schools. South Greenville Elementary School and Washington High School also are being considered as host sites.
Liles is working to develop curriculum to share with groups as far away as Texas and California, where communities have expressed an interest in implementing Daughters of Worth.
“One of the things that I’m learning in this process is it’s every girl (who needs this),” Liles said.. “I came in with a mindset that was really attached to the ones who were the discriminated against or the neglected. But what I’ve seen across the board is it doesn’t matter their ethnicity or their socioeconomic status, or what school they go to or what their last name is, every single girl has this need to know that she’s valuable, that she’s loved.”
In an effort to reach more girls, Daughters of Worth launched Notes of Hope in 2016. This effort, which began with 12 girls at Ayden Elementary School, provides girls with hand-written notes of encouragement each month.
“It was a way to be able to encourage a larger number of girls,” Liles said. “I can’t physically be in front of those girls all the time.”
Groups of women who volunteer for the project meet in churches, coffee shops and senior centers for “writing parties.” Equipped with Sharpies and stickers, the women spell out words designed to inspire girls they have never met.
“Not all of those girls receive the support at home or in their communities,” said Tania Overton, who serves on Daughters of Worth’s board of directors. “Just a simple kind word is enough to brighten their day and give them the motivation that they need to want to keep going. It gives them that extra push.
“For young women with self-confidence issues, it does more than just put a smile on their face,” she said. “It has a lasting impression.”
Kelli Joyner, school counselor for H.B. Sugg Elementary, has seen the difference Notes of Hope has made for a group of 10 first- and second-graders who began receiving notes last fall.
“They are excited to receive it,” she said. “They tell me, ‘I have my other ones pinned up in my room.’
“It definitely means it’s a treasure to them. It means a lot to these girls.”
Joyner hopes next school year to double the number of H.B. Sugg students receiving Notes of Hope, which has become Daughters of Worth’s fastest-growing program. More than 175 girls in a dozen schools in Pitt and Beaufort counties are participating, with plans to expand the program into Hyde and Johnston counties next year.
A third component to the program, Grace Gifts, is scheduled to launch next year in Beaufort County. It is designed to teach girls about business and financial management by giving them a chance to create and sell handmade items for their own benefit, as well as that of Daughters of Worth.
While Daughters of Worth has grown steadily, enabling Liles to leave her work at The Blind Center to become full-time executive director of the nonprofit organization last month, she has experienced challenges with her sons. About a year and a half ago, her oldest, who had gone to live with his father, was arrested. Her youngest, who has a history of mental illness, had to be hospitalized.
Liles remembers crying in her car at the end of a rainy day and wondering how she could continue with Daughters of Worth considering the turmoil in her personal life.
“I was just in this place of desperation,” she said. “I just questioned God and said, ‘How can I do this? How in the world can I go help these girls when my life is a complete mess? How can I go and help girls who don’t even belong to me when I can’t help my own kids?’”
As the rain poured, the answer came like thunder: Daughters of Worth was what she had prayed for all those years. Quitting was not an option.
“You can’t quit when things get hard, just because your life is falling apart,” Liles said. “If you stop and quit because it’s hard and your life is now a mess, then how can the girls know there’s hope on the other side? How can they know that there’s hope for them and for their life?”
That revelation would become part of Liles’ book, “Broken and Beautiful: From Ashes to Beauty Rising,” which is due for release later this month.
“If you are waiting for your family issues to be resolved before you step into the calling of your life, you may never take the first step,” Liles writes. “If you are waiting for your heart to be healed, for your finances to be stable, for your life to settle down, more than likely, you will always be waiting. There is never the perfect time or perfect way to step into the thing that he has called you to do.”
The book, in part, describes Liles’ journey from being adopted to adopting the cause of empowering girls.
“All of the pieces from my back story, the pieces from being adopted, God had all of that planned and in place. I just couldn’t see it,” Liles said.
“It’s not a project. It’s not this thing that I do. It is my life mission. It is what I am.”
Daughters of Worth’s inaugural Because She Matters Gala will be held from 6-9 p.m. Thursday at Arts of the Pamlico, 150 Main St., Washington, N.C. The event will include food, a cash bar, silent auction and guest speaker Teresa Allen. Tickets are $35. Contact Liz Liles at email@example.com for more information. Copies of Liles’ book, “Broken and Beautiful: From Ashes to Beauty Rising,” will be available for $15.