“Youths and professionals working together create so many opportunities to help and support those in need,” said Shreya Mantha. “Adults bring experience and expertise to the table, while youths bring new, innovative ideas. This collaboration can change the way we approach philanthropy.”
Maya Angelou once said, “When you get, give. When you learn, teach.” This is the message 17-year-old Shreya’s parents consistently instilled in her. They encouraged her from a young age to engage in her community beyond just school, family and friends, and it was this upbringing that brought the idea of Foundation for Girls to life.
A promise to Shreya’s late grandmother was the catalyst that started the organization. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2014, her grandmother’s last wish was that Shreya and her sister make an impact by helping vulnerable girls and youth. Determined to fulfill her grandmother’s wish, that’s exactly what Shreya did. Based in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, Foundation for Girls was officially established as a 501(c)(3) organization in 2014 and was eligible to receive grants. Shreya became the CEO and founder at just 13 years old.
Through its innovative and diverse programming, Foundation for Girls provides at-risk girls who are experiencing homelessness, in foster care, survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence, as well as teen moms, with the tools they need to realize their full potential and become strong, confident and self-reliant women. “We empower these girls in their journey from dependence to independence,” said Shreya. The organization offers programs in financial literacy, leadership, digital literacy and health and well-being. “Knowledge is power,” she said. “We are giving them knowledge and skills for a lifetime.”
Shreya believes that there is a leader in every girl; some just need a little help and nurturing along the way to find it within themselves. “These girls are lacking self-confidence and don’t have the ability to take charge of and own their lives yet. They’ve never had a caring coach, and without that they could fall back to where they came from,” says Shreya. She aims to never let that happen and works tirelessly to give the girls the support they deserve.
Foundation for Girls uses a partnership-based model to achieve its goals. With more than 20 community and corporate partners, Shreya, her sister Sahana, her peers and her group of adult professionals empower, educate and connect girls to economic opportunities. “When we work together we can achieve far more,” said Shreya.
Despite the city’s booming economy, the odds continue to be stacked against at-risk youth in the Charlotte area. Among the 50 largest cities in the United States, Charlotte ranks dead last in economic mobility due to segregation and a lack of educational opportunities. Twenty-two percent of North Carolina’s homeless population are children, and more than 10,000 children in the state are in foster care. Additionally, North Carolina is one of the top 10 states in the country regarding the number of sex trafficking reports.
Shreya aims to combat such inequalities with her collaborative and human-centric approach to community, and advocates for #GirlsWithoutLabels. In the past four years, Shreya and her team of more than 46 volunteers and 12 youth ambassadors have empowered more than 1,800 girls through their programs. Since its founding, Foundation for Girls has hosted 346 workshops, provided more than 16,000 hours of training and has exceeded $180,000 in funding. Shreya herself has invested more than 2,300 hours teaching digital literacy. By 2020, she aims to have impacted 2,600 girls and provided more than 20,150 hours of engagement for vulnerable girls and youth.
The program continues to grow throughout the United States and across the world. During the summer of 2019, Foundation for Girls will expand to new cities including Gastonia, North Carolina, and Rockhill, South Carolina, and will be implemented in Chile and India in fall of 2019.
Shreya is committed to creating a collaborative, youth-led movement for change. This commitment is apparent in the approach that Foundation for Girls takes to program design, always keeping the girls themselves at the center. These considerations include bringing programs to the girls rather than asking them to travel to a facility or location, encouraging youth and adult professionals to work together to provide services and developing programming that considers the individual needs and strengths of each girl instead of a standardized approach.
What’s extraordinary about Foundation for Girls is the lasting impact it has on those it empowers, said Diamond Williams, who has benefited from the programs the organization offers. “Growing up, I didn’t experience a stable living arrangement. My dream is to own my own home to make sure my daughter doesn’t have to go through my same situation,” she said. “The Foundation’s financial wellness program helped me plan, budget and take steps toward one day becoming a homeowner.”
“Foundation for Girls has helped me secure training as a Registered Behavior Technician and I will have a full-time job with a 401K, health and dental benefits. This is far more than what I had ever imagined,” said Diamond. “I am so happy that my daughter will have everything that I never did. Foundation for Girls is my family and they are helping me every step of the way.”
Foundation for Girls is helping thousands of girls like Diamond fulfill their dreams. “Their past does not define them,” Shreya said. “I don’t look at where they’ve been or what their past is. I look at where they are now and what they want to achieve.”