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The Ophelia Project

Imagine a program that aims to help young girls achieve all they can in life, one that meets them right where they are and is committed to ‘rescuing their potential’. That program does exist, it is called The Ophelia Project. After years of operating on campuses throughout the Valley, the program will officially launch through Palm Springs Unified at our schools this year!

The Ophelia Project is a mentoring program for teen girls 8th – 12th grade that has been designed to better prepare them for opportunities and obtain the necessary skills to make their dreams a reality. This program is a component of the JFK foundation, and its existence coincides with the mission of the foundation which is to “Enhance the physical, emotional and intellectual health and wellness of Coachella Valley children and families.” According to a 2017 Desert Sun article, “The Ophelia Project presents several components including anti-bullying, building self-esteem, nutrition, physical fitness, teen obesity prevention, and half a dozen other skills-and-ethics training, including “Pay it Forward.” After 22 years of service, Ophelia Project has now impacted over 750 girls and has more than 200 volunteers.” (The program launched with 5 girls and 3 mentors!). Boasting a 100 percent graduation rate, they are now positioning themselves to impact the entire Coachella Valley.

A night with the alumni!

In an effort to learn more about the program, last weekend I attended the annual Ophelia Project Alumni Reunion at College of the Desert. As I was walked around the room, I was able to chat with a few alumni, to gain some additional insight. Sitting quietly at a table were Angelina and Mariana, two distinguished alumni of the Ophelia Project. Prior to the ceremony beginning, I sat and discussed their involvement in Ophelia, and the impact it has made in their lives. Angelina was the first to reply, “It’s [Ophelia] a family! They opened and helped me open doors for so many opportunities that I didn’t know existed… I am where I am today because of Ophelia. Mariana chimed in next and stated that the program in itself is, “A support system, one that you can always go to…no matter what.”

This canvas brilliantly encapsulates the past decade of this life changing program. In explaining what the canvas represents Susan commented, “Each of the girls (there were only 150 that year, 2009/10) was given a 4”x4” blank canvas. Each girl painted on it what she wanted to be 10 years in the future. All the canvases were bolted together and framed. We’ve been waiting this whole decade for 2020 to get here for the reunion we had on Friday to see if any girls followed their dream or how their dream has changed.”

Next, I spoke with Ileana Murro (pictured with her fiancé), she began the program as a middle school student and completed the program in 2013. Attending the event as an alumni, she applauds Ophelia saying that it “Shaped me into the person I am today, taught me manners and professionalism, and motivated me to pursue higher education.” She is currently headed to obtain her Masters degree!

When explaining her passion for the project, Susan Francis, CEO of Ophelia has an energy that’s almost contagious. I was able to ask her a few questions concerning the program and the Desert Hot Springs launch:

How valuable is Ophelia to the lives of these girls?
“The simplest answer is that it positively changes lives of not just the girls, but the mentors as well. Therefore, Ophelia Project positively impacts the community…”

What do you look for in mentors, quality wise?
The primary function of a mentor is to help the girls to learn life skills and help teach them life experiences, and since mentors are the most integral part of the program, they must go through thorough training. There are some key things a potential mentor must be aware of: The mentor must be willing to commit to being on campus twice monthly for a total of four hours, monthly meetings with their mentor team (2 hours), monthly staff training (2 hours), and attend the Mentor Certification class. The program runs the 8 months of the school year and culminates with an annual luncheon that all mentors are encouraged to attend. Susan went on to say that she believes that by the mentors meeting these requirements, the girls are able to see the importance of commitment.

How excited are you to launch in DHS!?
Susan explained that after 6 years of waiting, and 2 false starts, she (and the team) are excited to officially launch here in DHS. In the past, although the opportunity presented itself, the connections to make the dream come true were not in place. She credits Dr. Sandra Lyon (and her board), Ophelia Project staff, and Advancing DHS (that’s us!) for forming the winning team and getting Ophelia to Desert Hot Springs.

Board member Aurora Wlson offered some perspective during our conversation:

How does Ophelia impact the lives of the young ladies involved (past, present, and future)?

“If you are referring to the young ladies that are part of the new Ophelia Alumni Council that was introduced last Friday, this group will begin a whole new phase of The Ophelia Project. By formally starting up the Alumni, the council will work on ways to spread the word about Ophelia and bring in new resources to the program which will include new mentors (from the Alumni) for the next group of Ophelia girls. The lack of women mentors has been an ongoing challenge for Program expansion and by reaching out to this untapped resource, the program will expand and impact more girls throughout the Desert area. The graduated Ophelia Girls that are grown women will have their own unique story to tell that will provide lessons and courage to new Ophelia girls. The new council will also go out and serve as Ophelia Ambassadors to tell the story of the Ophelia Project and spread the word.”

You are a board member correct? Why did you get involved?

“Yes, I am a Board Member of The JFK Memorial Foundation which houses The Ophelia Project. I was drawn to the Foundation because it serves our young women as well as families. As an elected Trustee of College of the Desert, Trustees work to ensure student success and by individually being involved with programs such as The Ophelia Project, I am doing my part to contribute to improving the quality of life for all our residents in the Coachella Valley. I would also like to recognize the staff, the Board of Directors, the three school districts and CEO Susan Francis for all of the long hours and hard work directed to The Ophelia Project.”

Dr. Sandra Lyon (superintendent of schools for Palm Springs Unified) has observed the program and pushed to introduce it to our schools.

Why do you feel launching Ophelia into DHS and PSUSD is so important ?
“Young people need mentors and Ophelia is an amazing opportunity for our young women to connect with adult women. The mentorship relationship helps our students learn more about themselves, feel confident in who they are, develop a strong understanding of their communities, and craft goals for their future. I have seen the benefit the program has provided to our students at other schools and we wanted to ensure that our DHS students had the same opportunity. Board president John Gerardi was also insistent that we offer this opportunity to our DHS young women and Ophelia staff and board members took on the challenge and said yes!”

Pictured with Dr. Lyon and Bill Powers of the JFK Foundation

Why did you get involved with the project ?
“I saw the success of this project and knew I wanted to be a part of it. My only regret is that my schedule does not allow me to mentor a student. When you hear the testimony of the students and especially the alumni and hear how impactful it has been, you can’t help but want to be involved.”

“This is a great and meaningful program for our local girls. Please support their efforts and Sponsor an Ophelia Girl.”- Edie Hylton

“This program works and volunteer mentors are needed. It is such a powerful experience, empowering for the girls and humbling for the mentors but rewarding for all involved. It’s so desperately needed in our community. I love the Ophelia Project.” Veronica Zepeda

Needless to say, we are very excited to have the Ophelia Project here in DHS! Let’s Advance DHS!

Recently I had the honor of sharing a story of giving at the Desert Sun’s Storyteller’s Event! Follow this link to check it out! https://www.desertsun.com/videos/life/entertainment/events/2019/12/15/watch-kephyan-sheppard-shares-giving-story-storytellers-project/2658324001/

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