High school girls from underserved communities in the Baltimore metropolitan area find inspiration and encouragement from Girls’ Empowerment Mission, a local volunteer-based organization.

GEM is a three-year college preparatory program held twice a month after school and during weekend retreats. The organization’s goal is to help students become independent, self-sufficient and confident young women.

“BeDazzle 2019: Voices of Hope, Stories of Resilience” is GEM’s major annual fund-raising event.  It will be held May 8, at 6:30 p.m. at Goucher College 1021 Dulaney Valley Road in Towson.

Jmore recently spoke with the event’s co-chair, Pikesville resident Randee Greenwald.

Jmore: What is “BeDazzle 2019” all about?

GW: This will be an inspirational evening of storytelling. Our speakers are people who have shown a strong sense of resilience and their own history of making the world a better place. Among those featured are Mohammed Al Samawi, Maria Broom and Kondwani Fidel.

Who exactly are these folks?

Mohammed Al Samawi is a peace activist and author. When he was in his early 20s and living in Yemen, he wanted to learn about Jews and Christians. But because he was Muslim, this outreach resulted in death threats. Then, he got trapped between Houthi rebels and Al-Qaeda fighters in his war-torn country. Through the kindness of Jews and Christians he barely knew, he escaped to the United States. He relates his inspiring saga in his book, “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee Coming to America.”

Maria Broom is an actor and dancer. A Baltimore native, she is a former WJZ personality and actress with recurring roles in HBO’s “The Wire” and “The Corner.” Maria is a Fulbright scholar and a faculty member of the Baltimore School for the Arts. Among many other programs, Maria Broom founded the Dance Girls of Baltimore, which mentors inner-city girls, seeking to pass on the values of self-discipline and thoughtful behavior.

Kondwani Fidel is a rapper, writer and poet. Kondwani grew up on the streets of Baltimore City and has taken his experiences to audiences around the world. The author of two books, “Hummingbirds in the Trenches” and “Raw Wounds,” he is also a filmmaker and writer of fiction who confronts education reform, civil rights and many of the problems in an underserved community.

How has GEM impacted disadvantaged girls living in the area?

The best way to answer is to tell you the stories of two GEM girls. Sarah’s single mom never let her or her four siblings know how bad things were, financially. One day, Sarah came home from school to a find a yellow paper, an eviction notice, on their door. With nowhere to go, they ended up in a motel.

She said, “I never told anyone where we were living or how I blamed myself for our family not having enough money because I wasn’t working. I felt like no matter what I did, I was only making matters worse. I was trying to learn how to be independent by shutting everyone out and making it seem like I was always doing fine. But my GEM leaders and my mentor made it easier for me to open up about my home life and grow and learn from all the different things that were going on. Also, it was great having time and assistance with applying to colleges during our GEM meetings. I needed to get out of my house in order to thrive. GEM helped me apply for scholarships so I was able to attend a four-year college and I graduated from Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. With the support and influence of the wonderful women in this program, I have learned my true worth.”

Joanna has another important story to tell. When she was 3, her mother was sent to prison and her father died.  She was raised by her sister and her aunt, but she often felt lonely and wondered when her mother was coming back. Then, when Joanna was in middle school, her brother died. She became depressed and her grades fell.

She joined GEM and her sister encouraged her to stay in it.  “I am so glad I did,” she said. “GEM means an opportunity for long-term friendships, and a chance to get away from all the negative things going on your life and at home. GEM opened my eyes to all kinds of new experiences. GEM is a chance for young women in high school to be a part of a wonderful organization that will help change and reshape their lives for the better. GEM has changed the live and the way of thinking for many young women, including me!”

How is your sister, Debbi Weinberg, involved with GEM?

Debbie founded GEM in 2004 and has been its chair ever since, always serving as a volunteer. Since then, she has dedicated herself to work with girls from underserved communities who want to make something of themselves.
 
Before GEM, she worked in the Baltimore County school system, first as a teacher and then as a guidance counselor. Girls who were really struggling would come to her for guidance because of problems at home, parents on drugs or parents incarcerated and being raised by older siblings. Working with these girls in a dropout prevention program inspired Debbi to start GEM.

How will this event appeal to Baltimore’s Jewish community?

GEM has always had a large Jewish donor base.  The Jewish community has embraced the program from its inception.  Many Jewish women have been volunteers and speakers throughout the years.

For information, visit gemmaryland.org.

Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.