Standing inside a Las Vegas youth correctional facility this past August, surrounded by young women, Ni’Cola Mitchell’s heart swelled. Being in juvenile detention isn’t exactly a place many people would say is a fulfillment of a dream but that is exactly what it was for her. As Ni’Cola looked at all those beautiful faces staring back at her, she knew that she was exactly where she was supposed to be, doing exactly what she was meant to do: Helping empower at-risk girls to get the resources they need to make a better life for themselves.
She was there as part of her Girls Who Brunch Tour, and for four hours she spoke, listened, held workshops, and made connections with mentors for each girl. “More than half of those girls were going to prisons and or treatment facilities or were certified [and could be prosecuted and sentenced] as adults,” she says. “These were girls who felt thrown away and lost and we were there to show them that was not true. Those four hours within those walls left a lasting effect not only on them but me as well.”
Courtesy Nilaya SabnisIt’s painfully personal
There is a reason Mitchell felt so connected to those girls—because she used to be one herself. Today she is an award-winning author and philanthropist but she started out as a young, frightened girl who’d been abused and let down by nearly everyone around her. “I was raped multiple times before the age of 16 and I was a victim of physical and emotional violence at home and in a relationship. In addition, I became a teen parent,” she says. “For a long time, I didn’t know I had any worth.”
She’s not alone in her experience. One in five girls will be a victim of sexual abuse before they turn 18—just one of the 16 unavoidable facts about domestic violence you need to know.
A mentor made all the difference
With no support at home or school, she was so busy trying to make it through the day that she didn’t even dare dream about the future. That is until she met Dr. William Sullivan, a professor she met through the Upward Bound program. “Dr. Sullivan didn’t allow me to wallow in my mess of a life. He didn’t give up on me. He pushed me to be better,” she says. “He took a chance on an at-risk girl and believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. If it wasn’t for Dr. Sullivan, I wouldn’t be here.”
It’s true: Finding a good mentor is one of the 32 secrets of people who’ve accomplished major things.
Courtesy Nilaya SabnisPaying it forward
Thanks to her mentor, she was able to fulfill her dreams of becoming a writer but she knew she didn’t want to stop there. “Dr. Sullivan helped me see that there was a reason why I had some of the experiences that I did, whether good or bad,” she explains. “I knew that my story was one of purpose and I felt like I owed it to other young girls who are in the same or similar situations that I was in, to help them the way he helped me.”
So in 2016, she started Girls Who Brunch, a non-profit organization dedicated to feeding girls’ bodies, minds, spirits—helping them to successfully transition to adulthood.
It’s not just about the food
Girls Who Brunch goes to schools and youth centers, reaching out to at-risk girls aged 9 to 17. In addition to the yummy food, they provide a variety of services designed around girls’ unique education needs to improve literacy, education in STEM, life skills, and health and wellness advice, to help girls escape what Mitchell suffered and become leaders in their own communities. She also brings in mentors—entrepreneurs, members of the military, performing and visual artists, businesswomen, CEOs, creatives, and movers and shakers—to teach and inspire each girl.
“This program allows every girl that walks through the door to spark the drive and purpose in their own spirit by letting them have fun while teaching them at the same time,” she explains.
Courtesy Nilaya SabnisIt’s about finding the girls who are too often forgotten
Girls Who Brunch specifically looks to help low-income communities and girls that all too often fall through the cracks of society, like girls in foster care, sex trade victims, survivors of domestic violence, and teen mothers. To date, the program has helped over 6,000 girls.
She’s changing lives… with limos
By showing girls there’s a bigger world than the world they are currently experiencing, she’s helping them break cycles of poverty and abuse. Even the little things make a big difference—like limos. “One of my favorite moments was when we were provided with limos and party buses to bring at-risk girls from the rural areas into Columbus, Georgia for a big Thanksgiving event,” she recalls. But the magic started before the girls even made it to the event. “Some of those babies cried so hard because they had never seen a stretch limo in real life,” she says. Something as small as a ride in a limo can make a girl realize she has worth and is important.
Courtesy Nilaya SabnisIt’s changing her heart too
One of the best parts, Mitchell says, is that the girls are helping her as much as she’s helping them. “They motivate me to not give up: I’ve never seen myself as a philanthropist but seeing the smiles on the girls’ faces and reading their text messages or online messages makes me realize how important this is,” she says. Even when things get tough trying to raise money, getting commitments from people in the community, or coordinating big events, she knows she can’t give up. “If I make a difference to only one girl in every city, that is a great accomplishment for me,” she says. “Who would have known that this little girl from Jamaica could have gone so far and touched so many lives?” Next, read on to learn more about 20 real-life heroes that are changing the world.
Ni’Cola was nominated as one of L’Oreal’s 2019 Women of Worth.