Blair Brettschneider was in AmeriCorps when she started working with a Burundi refugee family. Wanting to help as much as she could, Brettschneider tutored the eldest daughter in the family, 18-year-old Domi. Little did she realize how Domi would change her life.
Shortly after she started working with the teen, Brettschneider saw all of the challenges — language and educational barriers, culture clashes — that Domi and other refugee girls faced when they entered the U.S. Soon she decided to begin her own Chicago nonprofit, which she called GirlForward, that would work specifically with refugee girls. And she tackled all of this despite being just 22 years old.
“We started with a small group of girls I knew from the agency and grew from there,” Brettschneider told Everyday Heroes.
From these humble beginnings five years ago, GirlForward has grown into an organization with programs involving mentorship and education. Each refugee girl entering Brettschneider’s program is paired with a female mentor who meets with her once a week. The duos concentrate on goal-setting and life skills. The organization also runs Camp GirlForward, a daily camp that runs up to eight weeks during the summer. Camp leaders tutor the girls to help them become more comfortable in their classrooms and build their English skills. Attendees also enjoy field trips.
Chicago also has a Safe Spaces Project. GirlForward opens up classrooms in the group’s location for refugee girls to drop in and receive help with homework. These are girls who don’t necessarily have time to commit to or don’t want a mentor; they simply want a place where they can hang out and practice their English. Right now Chicago has 50 girls in the mentorship program and 150 who attend the Safe Spaces Project.
Of all the things GirlForward has done, Brettschneider says she’s most surprised that they’ve shifted their focus toward academics.
“I guess I didn’t realize we’d get so much into the schools, being innovative and creating our own curriculum and figuring out what we can do with it beyond our summer program,” Brettschneider reflected. “That’s something I’ve really enjoyed in just the past year.”
GirlForward recently started a new branch in Austin, Texas. Brettschneider says that Texas has the largest number of refugees in the nation and leaders there were looking for help.
“We had a lot of support from the community and agencies [in Austin] wanted us there,” she said.
The Austin branch is looking for volunteers to staff its mentorship program.
If you or anyone you know may be interested in helping GirlForward, please contact them through their website, www.girlforward.org.