ST. LOUIS – When Andre Villa moved to St. Louis in 2011, he noticed there were very few women-led teams in the corporate space.
That observation became the driving force behind his current nonprofit Embrace Your Own Beauty. The organization aims to inspire girls in the St. Louis area to be leaders of today, as well as teach them valuable assets through self-worth, beauty, confidence and having a voice.
Marshida Harris, a current board member with EYOB, has been working with nonprofits in the St. Louis area for several years, attributing her dedication to the same type of programs that she says invested in her years ago.
EYOB has partnerships with area schools each school year. Girls can sign up to take four classes over a semester, after school. The classes help build self-esteem, as well as discussing hardships and issues that young women face.
This year, the group is working at Fairview Elementary and Northview Elementary. The four classes the girls go through are: What is Beauty, Confidence is Beauty, I Have a Voice, and I Am Enough. Through the courses, the girls learn how to tell their personal stories, and develop self-confidence, self-esteem and self-acceptance.
Harris says it was important to let the girls know that they could be leaders of today, and that their voices were valid now, at their current ages, rather than solely when they become older. Role models include Malala Yousafzai and Michelle Obama.
The organization wants girls to understand that there is importance in their own lives even at their current ages, and that their stories can change the world. Connectivity is important.
“If you read a story to a girl, she will learn another woman’s story,” Harris explained. “But if you teach her how to write a book, she will learn to write her own story.”
Additionally, the girls learn practical skills, including financial literacy with a representative from US Bank. With parents’ permission, the girls are able to open their first bank accounts, with a starting amount of $5.
In December, EYOB graduated another class of young ladies, who will continue on to a second set of classes in the program.
Harris said the changes seen in the girls from the start of the program through graduation were palpable. Teachers as well as parents and other students have expressed seeing positive changes in the classroom as well as the school.
“One girl was getting bullied in class, and one of the EYOB girls said, ‘That’s not the EYOB way, and we don’t bully one another,’” Harris said.
Villa agreed, recounting that boys had expressed an interest in joining the program. Currently, there are no EYOB programs for boys, but it’s not something that Villa says is out of the question.
“I have moms and dads that reach out to me, thanking me,” Villa said. “I had no idea I was impacting their families.”
Harris said that although the work was rewarding, she knew it didn’t stop there.
She noted, “There are more than enough girls in St. Louis for us all to do the work.”