By Yvonne Wenger The Baltimore Sun.
Kayla Adams was feeling a little scared as she sat among a group of mentors at City Hall Tuesday, watching Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake speak.
The 17-year-old Western High School senior kept her hands folded on her lap. Inside, she was thinking about all of the successful women surrounding her and considering what career path she might choose.
"It opened up my eyes," Kayla said. "Everyone has been where I am, and it is going to be OK."
She was one of about 25 girls from Baltimore high schools who were paired for a day of mentoring with women in leadership positions in city government, businesses and nonprofits, including Under Armour, Legg Mason and the American Visionary Art Museum.
Rawlings-Blake told the girls to "take a deep breath and exhale" as she explained during the day's opening ceremony how mentoring helped shape her life. At age 14, she said, she had a chance to shake the hand of the famed civil rights leader Juanita Jackson Mitchell.
"That was the most powerful handshake," Rawlings-Blake said. "She said something to the effect of 'I can see you being a lawyer.' Her seeing that in me meant something to me. I still remember that to this day.
"We should all remember as mentors that we can speak light and courage and hope and dreams into our young women, even when we don't think they're paying attention."
The mayor said she wanted use the "Women Leading Baltimore" event to encourage more women across the city to become involved in the lives of girls as counselors, teachers and role models. The day of mentoring followed Rawlings-Blake's recent "Call to Action" urging men to become mentors, volunteers and tutors for boys.
Nina Harris, an assistant dean in the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, said the mayor's decision to encourage mentoring opportunities is in the city's best interest. Being exposed to successful women can help girls grow up to reach their fullest potential, she said.
"Mentoring is a cycle: Once you experience something positive in your life, the more likely you are to give back in the same way," Harris said. "Some of my greatest mentors didn't know they were mentoring me. I picked up things from being in their presence."
"It's about modeling, and at this age girls are very impressionable."
Jeffrey Grigg, a post-doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, said if middle schoolers and high schoolers can develop a vision for themselves, they can better navigate the challenges facing them.
"There are lot of things going on in kids' lives around that time," he said. "They change physically. They are more self-aware. Sometimes school gets harder. It's a very challenging time."
Multiple outlets offer mentoring for girls in Baltimore.
More than 200 city girls were served by Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake last year. An additional 250 girls took part in about a dozen mentoring programs offered by the city Department of Recreation and Parks.
At My Sister's Circle in Baltimore, director Heather Harvison said about 130 girls are paired with mentors with one objective in mind: "to create empowered, self-sufficient young women." The organization works to establish long-term relationships that give the girls exposure to new opportunities.
Harvison said the mayor's focus on mentoring will give Baltimore's young people more choices for their future.
"A caring adult presence makes such a difference. ... Young women need direct exposure to options, and they need support to reach their dreams."
Ashley Day, a Rawlings-Blake staffer who helped organize the event, said the mayor's office plans to hold mentoring events for girls regularly, perhaps as often as once a quarter.
The girls invited to participate are college-bound high achievers selected by their school guidance counselors. They ranked their interest in various careers -- health, public safety, law, business -- and were paired up with women working in those fields.
The girls were given certificates and pink tote bags stuffed with stationery stamped with "Be bold" and "You are beautiful," nail polish and bejeweled compacts. Each had a chance to pose for a "selfie" photo with the mayor and post it using the hashtag #WomenLeadingBaltimore.
Day said the girls and their mentors were encouraged to trade contact information and build a connection to last longer than the single day.
"It's like a blind date, and after that, it's up to both sides to nurture that relationship," she said.
Diana Foster, a 15-year-old freshman at the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business and Law, said she's dreaming about a high-powered job as a lawyer. Spending the day with Under Armour's senior legal counsel for litigation, Kristin Herber, was a thrilling opportunity, Diana said.
"I find it really necessary to help people in need, and I really like arguing with some people," she said.
The fact that she's an athlete, and daughter of the Lewis football coach, made the pairing with Under Armour "a double positive."
Herber said she wanted to give Diana a chance to see what her life might look like as a lawyer, and to introduce the girl to Under Armour co-workers so she could see as many job choices as possible.
"I hope it inspires the younger women to continue to strive to do what they want to do, be who they want to be," she said. "We need to encourage women to do whatever it is they want to do, and to stick with it when it gets hard. Because it does get hard."
Kayla, the Western senior, was paired with Rawlings-Blake for the day.
She traveled with the mayor to the Gilman School, where Rawlings-Blake spoke to some 500 boys about Women's History Month. Kayla sat in on the mayor's meetings with Cabinet officials, and the two had a chance to talk about how Rawlings-Blake, a Western graduate, came to be the city's top elected official.
Rawlings-Blake said she wanted Kayla and the other girls to leave with an experience that "speaks to their spirit."
"It has helped me in immeasurable ways to have exposure to highly qualified and confident women that have just touched me in little ways," she said. She said they "helped build my confidence in not just my academic skills, but in the soft skills you need to be successful."
Kayla said she hasn't decided just what career she'll choose -- she's thinking about a future in communications and deciding among multiple college offers -- but the experience gave her a lot to consider.
She wonders whether she'll look back on the day in the years to come, as Rawlings-Blake looks back to the moment she shook the hand of Mitchell, the state's first black female lawyer.
"The mayor could have been that person to me," she said.