Joy Nelson Thomas is Helping At-Risk Girls Become Confident Community Leaders

Joy Nelson Thomas is the founder and executive director of LEAD Girls of NC, a nonprofit dedicated to helping at-risk preteen girls build self-confidence and gain the skills they need to be strong leaders in their community.Since its founding in 2015, LEAD Girls has helped more than 500 girls through evidence-based school and community programs. 

“Everything that we do is being analyzed,” Joy says. “I have a philosophy that if you’re not helping, you’re probably hurting. And the only way to really know is if you are collecting data.”

And the data shows that LEAD Girls is incredibly successful. According to the 2020 Impact Snapshot, “94% of girls report that they Agree/Really Agree with the statement: “Overall I am satisfied with myself” after completing the LEAD program—a 25% increase from the girls who felt that way at the start of the program.

Joy says, “It’s so important for me to make sure that we’re not just throwing programs up in schools just to say we’re serving girls, but that we’re truly impacting these girls and helping to change the trajectory of their life.”

Answering The Call to Move

Joy knew that she was meant to do more than work in the corporate world. She felt called to help the girls in her community find their self-worth. Joy was a victim of bullying throughout school and knew firsthand what this can do to a person’s mental and emotional health. But it was a moment in church that finally pushed her to start LEAD Girls.

“I remember being in church one Sunday and there was a young girl at the altar,” Joy says. “She was there because her friend tried to take her life the night before and was in the ICU.” During the service, the bishop spoke about how girls in the community didn’t value their lives and felt like they didn’t have a purpose. 

Joy knew it was time to do something. 

It took a lot of hard work to get LEAD Girls off the ground, but Joy wasn’t going to quit. She knew how important this program could be for the girls in the Winston-Salem community. Being a woman of color starting an organization primarily working with girls of color, she had to go through an additional level of scrutiny.

“I received a lot of no’s when I first started,” Joy says. “I took those no’s as a ‘not now’ and kept moving forward.”

Giving Girls a Safe Space to Dream

Joy’s determination paid off and today, hundreds of girls have a safe space to dream, create goals and gain skills to navigate life’s challenges.

Preteen girls in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools can participate in a variety of programs, like the in-school LEAD Program. This follows an evidence-based curriculum to help girls explore career and academic options, learn how to set boundaries, uplift diversity, build communication skills and much more.

During the summer, girls can join the LEAD Fashion Entrepreneurship Camp. Not only do the campers learn how to sew and get to be creative, but they also learn important business skills. The girls meet with local businesswomen who teach them about marketing, creating a brand, and speaking up for themselves in professional settings.

And these are just a few of the incredible programs LEAD offers. LEAD also offers a Girls Expo. In 2021 girls had the chance to meet Lyn Sisson-Talbert, author and producer of the film Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, participate in a HipHop step party and explore STEM.

“I believe a lot in collaborations because it really does take a village if we really want to change the statistics in our community,” Joy says.

Her Advice to Young Girls

Joy wants the girls in her community to remember that what they are going through is a phase.

“When I was bullied, I thought that was the end of the world,” she says. “You have something so beautiful inside of you and that even if people can’t see it or understand it, you have to know that it’s there.”

Joy built the LEAD Girls program to help at-risk girls realize they have choices. Through these engaging programs, the girls are encouraged to become independent, self-confident leaders who can help create a brighter future for their community.

“We have to understand that our kids need a space that is safe, that allows them to have a voice. And think about if we taught women that earlier, what would that look like when we go into a job and we know they are underpaying us or a boss is trying to take advantage of us,” Joy says. 

By helping girls find their voice, LEAD Girls lives up to its mission of “change a girl, change a community, change the world.”