ANN ARBOR, Mich. – What would make a person give up a powerful career and six-figure salary? For Ann Arbor's Sue Schooner, it was a special group of young women in her community.
Schooner is the founder and director of Girls Group, an organization that mentors young women through middle and high school and helps them become first generation college graduates.
Although Schooner started the group to help these girls, she says they have taught her as much as she has taught them.
"I met these young women when they were in middle school, they basically took over my life, and I eventually retired from my job to do this full time," she said.
Many of the girls, like 17-year-old Ajanay Bradshaw, have overcome great obstacles to get to where they are today. Bradshaw has experienced homelessness on and off since the seventh grade, and said her school work often suffered because of it.
"It was hard because I have two younger siblings, a brother and a sister, and while my mom was at work we had to stay at family members' houses and I had to make sure my brothers and sisters were always OK," she said. "I really couldn't do too much, but I wasn't complaining because my mom needed my help, and I love my mom."
Bradshaw graduated from Lincoln High school as part of the class of 2013 and plans to attend Washtenaw Community College in the fall, where she will study to become a physical therapy assistant.
Bradshaw said none of this would have be possible without Girls Group.
"They also found out that I had a disability this year, so it was kind already too late to even get some services in place so I can graduate on time, and Girls Group helped me make that possible," Bradshaw said. "Now I have a home, I'm actually graduating on time."
When asked about the founder of Girls Group, Sue Schooner, Bradshaw had nothing but praise.
"Oh my goodness Sue is amazing, she...for her even starting this program for girls is just something good," said Bradshaw.
Now in it's ninth year, Girls Group has seen 37 young women become first generation college students, and continues to mentor them through college.
Jaszmine Taylor just finished her first year at Wayne State University and has appreciated the continued support Girls Group has offered her. "They helped me with the whole college process and made a lot of stuff easier, stress-free," she said.
Girls Group also mentors 50 middle school girls and 50 high school girls. Every week after school, the girls hold discussion groups where they tackle the issues that affect them; everything from self esteem and sex to parents and college. In addition to these weekly discussions, they also take the girls on trips and bring in guest speakers, to expose them to the career opportunities that are available for them.
"We do ACT prep, we do the motivational work, we take girls on college tours, we sponsor them on the tour of historically black colleges, we help with essays, applications, financial aid scholarships, move girls into dorms, so anything that they would need to be successful," said Schooner.
A team of social work interns and mentors work with the girls one-on-one to help them with homework, and serve as resources. The goal, said Schooner, is to create an environment of positive peer pressure.
"Our mentors and our interns are young and cool and the girls can look up to them and want to be like them and that's really empowering," she said. "What we try to do is create a positive peer pressure environment where there's enough people surrounding the girls so that they know that its good to stay in high school, they know that its good to work on academics they know that college is a good thing."
For Bradshaw, Girls Group has been the positive influence that Sue Schooner set out to create. But it has also become much more -- for Ajanay, Girls Group has become like a family.
Girls Group is able to continue because of the generous contributions from donors and volunteers. If you would like to get involved, click here for more information.