Girls Lighting the Way

Growing up in New Orleans, Dawn Jeffries EMBA ’14 lost her mother at a young age but she recalled several “aunts,” who weren’t family by blood but by example. One woman used church activities to instill leadership principles then helped Jeffries with her school papers. A cousin stepped in as a confidante and mentor, serving as a surrogate sister.

“There were a lot of women in my family and friends of my parents who stepped up when it was important,” Jeffries said. “Those were the women who made sure I was whole.” 

But while working grueling hours on Wall Street after getting her economics degree at Spelman College, Jeffries didn’t have time or energy to do much beyond writing checks to support her favorite causes. And she realized that didn’t always have the intended effect. 

“A check is good, but a check gets parsed in so many ways.”

She decided to go further after following her physician husband and his job to Ohio. Using his contacts and those of her church, Jeffries worked with teen girls for some “boots on the ground” kind of work. 

After arriving in Peoria, she decided to check the EMBA off her bucket list. Her thesis, plus her background, led to her forming the nonprofit GLOW (Girls Light Our Way) in early 2015. 

“The executive MBA was my way of getting more education because I knew these kids needed more,” Jeffries said, adding that drive led to her pursue a doctorate at Benedictine University. She defended her thesis earlier this year and it is now being edited for publication.

GLOW addresses several areas: physical, mental and nutritional wellness; self-efficacy; and what Jeffries calls “literacies of power,” which encompass finances, politics and media, among others.

“All of those things are important for a young lady to become a solid contributor, a productive citizen. I try anything and everything that may spark their interest in each of those areas.”

For GLOW’s participants, that includes biking — Jeffries bought bicycles for girls in the program and taught some of them to ride — dance (a friend is a former Joffrey Ballet dancer), water aerobics and horseback riding. 

But it’s not just physical activities. There are college tours, scholarship applications, etiquette sessions, cultural visits to Chicago and a music video for one of the group’s two original songs.

Jeffries, a wealth adviser at Merrill Lynch, works with two Peoria high schools and a pair of middle schools to offer GLOW, which draws 40 to 75 girls, depending on attendance. Sessions are held weekly, sometimes multiple times a week at the schools while activities and field trips are outside school. 

GLOW is far from a solo endeavor. Jeffries cited assistance from a variety of professional sources, executives, her husband’s fraternity brothers and their spouses. One woman goes beyond academic and behavioral lessons to teach sewing and quilting. 

 “She’s quilting more in their lives than just fabric,” Jeffries said. “She’s quilting relationships, connection and wisdom. This community shows up in a big way for these girls.” 

Indicative of GLOW’s impact, every girl in the first cohort went on for further education after high school, and Jeffries noted the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed the group’s activities. The GLOW girls all have laptops and sessions have moved online. In some cases, the pandemic-related restrictions actually expanded opportunities, as with an ongoing professionalism series.

“… Now that we’re online, I have access to my friends all over the world. These girls get to see (my) roommate who is a chef, (others) who are a psychologist, an attorney, my sorority sister who’s a lobbyist in D.C. 

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” 

- Bob Grimson ’81