INTERVIEW BY ERICA KERMAN, SENIOR ASSOCIATE
It seems that nowadays, everyone could use a helping hand; but, especially those who are younger and most vulnerable. Jayaram Law’s Erica Kerman, who works closely with the organization empowerHER®, sat down recently with Founder and CEO Cara Belvin to discuss their mission to serve, support and uplift the young who have lost their mothers.
Tell us about the important work that empowerHER does.
For most young girls, their mother is the most influential figure in her life, and the loss of this maternal compass leaves their daughters feeling isolated and “different” from their peers. empowerHER’s mission is to empower, support and connect girls and young women who have experienced the loss of their mothers, across the country and the globe. The organization currently serves 450 girls with ages up to 24 years old, in 26 states and 10 countries, through its year-round 1:1 MENTOR MATCH program and ‘EVENTS for GIRLS.’
Childhood bereavement is more common than people realize. According to Judi’s House/JAG Institute, 1 in 22 children will experience the death of a parent by age 25 in the United States (about 4.75 million children). Individuals bereaved during youth are at higher risk for psychological and behavioral health problems, including elevated rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress reactions, conduct disorder, substance abuse, and functional impairment.
For the millions of youths who are bereaved, access to the three critical grief care protecting factors:
1) positive role models, 2) caring community, and 3) peer support, are essential to healthy adjustment.
What motivated you to form empowerHER?
I was nine years old when my mother Kit died of breast cancer at age 37. While I have always been incredibly grateful for the loving, supportive father, older brother and extended family and friends that rallied around me, I still felt isolated and alone for most of my childhood and young adult life. I didn’t know another girl whose mom had died, and I was desperate to meet someone who could relate to the profound loss that I had experienced. After growing up, becoming a school psychologist, and starting my own family, I was often connected with young, widowed fathers in my community on the South Shore of Boston, who wanted my advice about how to support their daughters. I realized this vulnerable, at-risk population of girls and young women were underserved across the country and, out of the gratitude I felt for all the layers of support my family received while I was growing up, I founded empowerHER in 2013.
Tell us more about the mission and how things began to unfold for the organization.
Initially, empowerHER’s mission was simply to bring teenage girls away on Mother’s Day weekend for a retreat in Boston and remind them they are not alone in their grief. The first retreat had 7 girls who had never met each other, and it was magical. The girls did not want to wait a whole year for another event! So, empowerHER began to host more EVENTS for GIRLS throughout the year to include a beach bash, cooking class, yoga, “Real Talk” about women’s health, an actor’s workshop and more. All were—and still are—offered at no charge to the family and are designed to offer similar experiences as their same-age peers in a safe and supportive space.
We have been offering these non-therapeutic, community-based, and volunteer-driven events as a way of building an inclusive, caring community of girls supporting girls, and women supporting women; all of whom have experienced the same profound loss.
The Annual Mother’s Day Retreat is still our flagship event, creating an environment in which each participant feels safe, secure, and supported. Retreat activities include poolside chats, private dinners, yoga and breathing techniques, and other meditative practices. Also provided are art therapy and skincare classes, as well as other impactful activities appropriate to each developmental age and stage of grief. The most important support is likely to come from the other girls themselves at the retreat. All are encouraged to be caring and attentive to each other and we have found through past retreats that conversations flow freely within the group. Many girls reach out after the event and remain in close contact throughout the year.
We want the girls to have fun, celebrate their moms, cry if they need to, and learn from a young age that we are meant to hold both grief and joy—something I learned only as an adult, but wish I had known when I was much younger.
What impact has empowerHER had on its enrollees?
When asked to describe what they feel they got out of the Mother’s Day Retreat, some girls felt that they got a peaceful break from daily life, others said they were changed forever by the love and support of so many girls and women and were greatly impacted by seeing younger girls powering through their grief. One 14-year-old girl shared that the feeling of “being the only one” was now gone.
Girls have told us that having empowerHER with them as they grow up has given them a resource to talk about their loss and peers who understand what they are going through. Some have met their best friends through the program; friendships that they didn’t know they needed before they found empowerHER. We’ve heard time and time again that empowerHER has given girls a silver lining and helped them to find the beauty in their grief. One 20-year-old young woman shared that the program has taught her that you don’t always need to be the super strong, “hyper independent” person and it’s okay to let others take care of you sometimes.
I’d love to share a couple of stories from our mentorship program.
Please do! The more we learn, the more we want to hear.
We have an 8-year-old girl enrolled who lost her mother to the devastation of substance abuse disorder. She is one of five siblings being raised by her 78-year-old great grandmother because their father was unable to deal with the loss of his wife. We matched her with a strong, compassionate, fun-loving woman who shares time bike riding (for the first time), collecting rocks at the beach, and attending empowerHER events with her where the young girl connects with other girls her age, reducing isolation she once felt in school and in her community. Her great-grandmother expressed her gratitude for the empowerHER 1:1 MENTOR MATCH program: “The special bond they have is too deep to adequately express in words. My great-granddaughter no longer questions her worth.”
A 21-year-old young woman from Boston reached out to empowerHER’s LEGACY group, after her mother died three years ago, and her father had taken his life just 18 months later. Through LEGACY, a unique program that bridges the gap between high-school and the next chapter of life for young women ages 19-24, we matched her with a mentor who experienced similar losses in her young adult life. She told us: “I’d be lost without my mentor, who not only supports me in pursing my education, but also understands the depth of pain I have no words to describe.”
What makes empowerHER different from other non-profit organizations that support grieving children and young adults?
empowerHER is a true pioneer in children’s bereavement and one of the only nonprofit organizations in the U.S. serving girls of maternal loss in a community-based, non-therapeutic and volunteer-driven model. The program serves girls in their “natural environment” where they live and grieve, reduces isolation they feel and diminishes the feeling of being “the only one” who is grieving an unimaginable loss.
Unlike most childhood grief services, empowerHER is community, not counseling. We have fostered a supportive community where girls can relate to each other’s loss. These girls are united by a shared goal to heal, grow, and connect. We are similar to other support programs only in that we are collaborative by nature with numerous other community-based and therapeutic organizations, and in that our demographics are diverse; we serve girls from resourceful communities and families. However, more than 70% of our enrollment represents girls from economically disadvantaged families.
Tell us more about empowerHER’s 1:1 MENTOR MATCH program.
After about a year of organizing several events for girls, we recognized that the girls and young women of empowerHER needed year-round support in addition to our events. In 2015, we built a mentor program with a technical support grant from Mass Mentor Partnerships (MMP), a leading expert in youth mentorship. Girls of all ages are matched with a positive role model from the community to help them “grow through grief” while also providing additional supports to the girl’s immediate and extended family.
Mentors commit to a year of formal mentoring with a frequency of meet-ups that corresponds with the needs of the girl or young woman. The goal of the MENTOR MATCH program is to form a lasting relationship that spans for years to come. Mentorship improves a young girl’s self-esteem and ensures day-to-day life experiences are met with passion, excitement, and a positive growth mindset while instilling hope and optimism.
Most importantly, Mentors help girls and young women to see that they can hold both grief and joy, and that their loss is survivable. As many of us know, the early loss of a mother not only affects her children, but adult family members as well. What kind of impact has empowerHER had on the families it serves?
While empowerHER is primarily a resource for grieving girls, we’ve realized that we have a tremendous impact on the surviving parents/guardians, and other grieving family members. Families whose girls are enrolled in the program draw strength from the community and take solace in the fact that the girls have a strong support system in the form of peers and mentors who can understand them on a deep level. We’ve had fathers tell us that their daughters’ mentors are like sisters to them and have become part of their families. One father in Boston, whose daughter is an only child, recently shared his experience of working two full-time jobs and feeling bad that his daughter has to be alone much of the time. He expressed his deep gratitude that empowerHER reduces that feeling of aloneness for her and gives her a strong, caring community to be apart of.
“Unlike most childhood grief services, empowerHER is community, not counseling. We have fostered a supportive community where girls can relate to each other’s loss. These girls are united by a shared goal to heal, grow, and connect.”
In 2015 we created a Father’s Group and have organized events for fathers to meet and get to know each other as well. As we grow, we are always looking for more ways we can support the entire families we serve.
How has the pandemic impacted the organization’s work, and the girls and families it serves?
Until late 2019, empowerHER had only one chapter: New England. The organization was looking to expand to ten total chapters across the country: Tri-State, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Southwest, West Coast, Southern California, Northern California, Pacific Northwest, and was fundraising to meet that goal. By late 2019, we had raised enough funds to open our first chapter outside of New England, set in Southern California. The plan was for all events for girls to remain in-person and mentor-mentee matches to live in close physical proximity to each other.
When Covid hit, we knew that we could not stop offering programs to girls. And we realized the silver lining of having to move to a virtual setting allowed us to open our programming across the country and globe, so we greenlit all ten chapters. During Covid, we hosted two virtual Mother’s Day Retreats (2020 and 2021) that brought hundreds of girls together each year, and also launched a SoulCircle series, Fireside chat series, baking event, and mantra workshop led by a Peloton instructor. We also launched a virtual mentorship program. We matched girls and women across-state lines and continued to screen and train mentors virtually with the same care and consideration that we always had.
Since March 2020, empowerHER enrollment has doubled. We now serve girls in more than half of the United States and 11 counties across the globe.
What are empowerHER’s goals for the next few years?
We are now focused on building our ten chapters across the country and just recently, formally opened a chapter in the UK. In fall 2021, we launched the ‘empowerHER everywhere’ series of events, the first-time in-person events for girls were held outside of New England, in 9 cities: Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Hartford, Los Angeles, New York, Boston’s North Shore, Boston’s South Shore, and Washington, D.C.. Over 100 girls and women came together for pumpkin decorating, tie-dying, painting and connection.
We continued ‘empowerHER everywhere’ with a virtual Galentine’s Party on February 6, where girls created a self-love collage that included photos of themselves, friends, moms, favorite quotes and affirmations, goals and dreams. We are now deep in the planning of the 2022 Mother’s Day Retreat in 10 different cities!
A long-time goal at empowerHER has been to expand our reach to ALL youth (boys, girls, and non-binary) who have experienced parental loss of any kind—mother or father. As we’ve continued to grow our giving society and expand fundraising efforts in new and creative ways, this is something we hope to accomplish in the very near future.
What are some of the challenges facing empowerHER?
Outreach to girls and families to make them aware of empowerHER is something that we are always looking to improve. Because the girls we serve generally don’t self-identify, it has often been a challenge to reach girls who can benefit from our programs. There are also barriers because of how society views and talks about grief and loss in general, and especially when it comes to the difficult topic of childhood grief. We’ve found that many potential referral sources, like pediatricians or guidance counselors, want to suggest our programs to a father, grandparent, or other guardian, but are worried about how the suggestion will be received.
One of our long-term goals is to change this perception that grief and loss need to be handled “internally” only by the immediate family, and that becoming part of a larger community that can relate to your unique experience is a powerful tool for healing.
Do you face any unique legal challenges as an organization?
Since opening up our programs globally during Covid, we’ve had to strategize, with legal and other advisors, on how best to open and maintain chapters across the country. This includes drafting comprehensive policies and procedures for our programs to mitigate risks. We’ve also obtained copyright protection on our toolKITs that guide our mentoring program, ‘empowerHER everywhere’ events, and Mother’s Day Retreat.
We also have faced several instances where we’ve had to protect our trade name, empowerHER®, from infringement. Non-profits named with the words “empower” and “her” have become very popular!
I thought Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband suddenly in 2015, explained this common problem so well. In a recent interview, she described a common theme where people will express condolences to someone once and then never bring it up the loss again because they don’t want to remind the person about it. But the person hasn’t forgotten! Silence actually doesn’t protect or help the person.
She also said—and I completely agree—that it can be really hard for people facing any loss or other challenge to bring it up on their own, and it’s actually really nice for others to give them an opening to talk about it if they want to.
What do you tell people who want to refer a child or young adult to empowerHER, or share the opportunity to become a mentor, but are unsure how to do that?
Those observations are spot on. This is something that is definitely a challenge for empowerHER, and many grief organizations we’ve spoken to over the years. We always say that you can never say the wrong thing if it is said out of love. By sharing empowerHER, you could really change the course of a young person’s life. With social media, it’s also easier than ever to share with someone. We are on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and TikTok!
If anyone is interested in learning more, all of my staff and I are very responsive on email and social media, and are always more than happy to on a call or a Zoom with a potential enrollee, her family, or an interested volunteer.
How else can readers support empowerHER and its mission?
There are so many ways to support the mission. Of course, if you know a girl or young woman of any age up through 24 whose mother has passed away, you can enroll her through our website. We’ll quickly set up a meet and greet with a staff member and girl from the organization to provide more information and welcome her.
For anyone that has experienced maternal loss, they can apply to be a mentor online. We hope that pretty soon, we will be expanding to all children of any parental loss, so opportunities for mentoring will be greatly expanded.
If you’re unable to become a mentor, there are still countless ways to get involved. You can volunteer to plan an in-person event for girls in your community, fundraise, become a partner through our giving society, run with TEAM empowerHER, or apply to serve on our Board of Directors.
Mother’s Day Luminaria is a wonderful way to support our community. Starting in 2021, more than 3,000 loved one’s names were illuminated in 10 cities in honor of Mother’s Day, spreading our empowerHER message of hope and optimism in unprecedented ways. Luminaria raises critical operating funds for empowerHER and reminds the girls of empowerHER; that they are not alone in their grief. On Mother’s Day weekend 2022, we will again light up iconic landmarks across the country with personalized luminary bags that anyone can purchase to honor or remember any loved one. Luminary bags can be purchased on our website.
Above: Founder Cara Belvin
Images courtesy of empowerHER