Getting girls to college

A traveling childhood gave Charmaine Clay a look at living conditions across the country. Now, she’s giving back to help girls from disadvantaged backgrounds develop resilience – and make it to college.

Fidelity Charitable donor Charmaine Clay holds a sign stating, “STRONG.” Her mentee, Jennifer Urdaneta, holds a sign stating, “BOLD.” They’re in front of a backdrop that says “girls inc.”

Fidelity Charitable donor Charmaine Clay, left, and her mentee, Jennifer Urdaneta, at a luncheon for Girls Inc. of Alameda County. The two met through the nonprofit’s mentoring event.

Many first-generation college students have to navigate the complexities of the education system alone.

But Jennifer Urdaneta had two resources some lack:

Her long history with Girls Inc. of Alameda County, a nonprofit program for girls from underserved neighborhoods that has supported Urdaneta’s progress since middle school.

And her mentor, Girls Inc. board member and Fidelity Charitable donor Charmaine Clay. Since meeting at one of the nonprofit’s alumni events, Clay has coached Urdaneta through graduate school applications and major career choices.

“Without Charmaine, I would have been completely alone in navigating the system,” says Urdaneta, who earned two bachelors degrees and is working on her masters. “Having a mentor has been so important to reaching my dreams.” 

Learning resilience

Clay is a member of the Omaha tribe, and was born on a Native American reservation in North Dakota. When she was a child, her father’s career as a hospital administrator took the family to reservations around the country. Many of her childhood friends had to cope with poverty, and often lacked support and mentorship for their educational success.

“I was fortunate to live in a family where both parents were inspired by education, but I still had to learn how to be resilient,” says Clay. “It’s important that we start early to help girls from disadvantaged backgrounds make progress.”

Now retired from a long and diverse career with Wells Fargo, Clay sees herself and her childhood friends in the students she volunteers with at Girls Inc. of Alameda County. She’s committed to helping in any way she can: she’s a board member, she recommends grants from her Giving Account and she volunteers directly to mentor girls in the program.

“We show students they have their community behind them”

An affiliate of the national Girls Inc. nonprofit, the program works with girls ages 6 to 19 from underserved neighborhoods to help them improve their literacy, gain science and math skills, boost healthy living and practice leadership skills through community advocacy.

Clay’s impact-based giving strategy fits well with the nonprofit’s local focus and impressive completion rates: A recent alumni survey conducted by the organization showed 92 percent of respondents aged 26 and over had completed a post-secondary degree or certificate, which the organization contrasts with a national average for low-income students at about 16 percent.

Donors and volunteers like Charmaine are “critical” to the Girls Inc. mission, says Kathy Brown, Chief Development Officer for Girls Inc. of Alameda County. As part of the nonprofit’s “Women of Impact” program, Charmaine and other women from the area volunteer their time to mentor, conduct mock interviews, read scholarship essays and more.

Along with obvious benefits to academics and career skills, these regular visits give students a foundational message, Brown says: their community believes in and supports them.

“There are times when marginalized youth wonder, ‘who’s in my corner? Who really has my back?’” Brown says. “We don’t just say we’re behind them, we demonstrate that – and volunteers help us do that by showing up. It shows the students that they have their community behind them.”

Clay stays in touch with Urdaneta, who now works as a quality improvement administrator at Bay Area Community Services while earning her masters degree in public policy from Mills College.

“Having someone who has been through the system already and is such an empowering woman, who is so supportive of my dreams and goals – it’s incredible,” Urdaneta says.

This testimonial and the statements and opinions expressed in this article are based on an interview with Charmaine Clay who provided permission to use her name. This testimonial statement is not indicative of future programs and/or services and may not be representative of the experience of all donors.

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