Program Director Kirstyn Mayden, left back, and Assistant Director Ava Simpson with the girls who are showing off certificates they received after completing the 10-week program. Photo by John Coleman.

By John W. Coleman*

Like too many girls, Ariel Gilliam, a shy 8-year-old, was used to being bullied at school. She would keep to herself mostly, but then “act out” with aggression when she’d had enough, according to her mother.

So it was no surprise that learning to understand and to resist bullying through assertive behavior was Ariel’s favorite lesson at Worthy Girls, Worthy Lives, a new, 10-week education and mentoring program in inner-city Baltimore, Md.

Ariel’s shyness is giving way to growing self-expression. “They’re teaching her to be more confident, and she’s even becoming a role model to her friends,” said Linnea Wayman, a grateful mom who uses Facebook and other social media to eagerly tell friends and family about this newfound blessing in her daughter’s life.

The aptly named Worthy Girls, Worthy Lives (WGWL) is one of two innovative local ministries launched in 2013 and resourced through a new collaborative initiative called Spark12. Spark12, a pilot incubator program, was a collaborative effort by several United Methodist agencies, including the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the General Board of Church and Society, and United Methodist Communication. The Leadership Table, which authorized the first year of the program, also included the General Board of Discipleship, and the General Board of Global Ministries.

The Spark12 program helps emerging Christian leaders – mostly young adults – design, launch, and find sustainable support for start-up ministries that emphasize social justice and equal opportunity.

A second round of applications will be accepted early next year.

After months of training, selection, and preparation, Kirstyn Mayden, WGWL executive director, and Ava Simpson, assistant director, welcomed their first class of 13 young girls on July 27. For 10 Saturdays, the girls, mostly ages 9 to 12, joined in creative activities to learn self-esteem, personal responsibility, service to others, spiritual growth, and leadership skills.

On Oct. 12, at Baltimore’s Eubie Blake Cultural Center, 10 girls received certificates and celebrated the completion of their first session with a banquet and visual and verbal presentations of what they had learned.

They had created colorful anti-bullying T-shirts and “vision boards” to illustrate their own hopes and dreams. They had visited museums, kept daily journals, and learned gardening, healthy nutrition, personal hygiene, grooming and exercise, restaurant etiquette, interpretive dance, and other self-enriching pursuits.

“It felt awesome to learn how to dance with feeling and to express myself,” Samaya Johnson, 11, told the audience. She also assured them, “I’ll never be a bully.” Like other girls who spoke, she intends to bring a friend to the next session, beginning in January 2014, when program organizers hope to have 15 girls enrolled.

Samaya’s mother, Gwendolyn Johnson, one of several parents who also addressed the gathering, said she could tell her daughter was “learning to make good choices and decisions for herself . . . and having experiences that build character.”

Mayden and Simpson, both in their thirties, attend Celebration Church on Monroe Street, a Baltimore congregation and site of the Worthy Girls, Worthy Lives program. Through the church, the two friends have worked for several years with girls in the surrounding Poppleton community, an area rife with poverty, crime, teen pregnancy, poor academic performance, and poor health.

Mayden, a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., also earned a Master of Divinity degree from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. An intake counselor at a local adult education center, she has 12 years of experience as a tutor, summer camp teacher, counselor, and children’s program director.

Simpson, a Howard University graduate with a Master’s degree in Public Administration, has experience in nonprofit children’s programs and in writing and public speaking, which she teaches to the girls. Both partners speak of the importance of ardent commitment in this ministry and their “passion to help girls succeed in life.”

“A lot of these girls don’t have freedom or opportunities to dream and articulate their dreams,” said Mayden. “This is the age group that often doesn’t get enough attention or support; but they are vibrant and talented, and we’re trying to expose them to knowledge and life skills that can benefit them in this transitional period, as they begin to mature into young adults.”

Worthy Girls, Worthy Lives reminded Tracy Adams of her own difficult childhood. “I was always blaming my mother for everything,” she confessed to the audience. “But I when I thought about it later, I realized I didn’t think much of myself as a child. I didn’t think of myself as worthy. I’m glad this program is helping and caring for my daughter.”

Spark12 provided Mayden and Simpson with a $10,000 seed grant and 12 weeks of coaching and boot-camp-style training in program and curriculum development, fundraising and friend-raising, promotion through traditional and social media, and other basics needed for any start-up business or organization.

While its goal is to support innovative social justice ministries in the U.S., Africa, and the Philippines, the Spark12 program is also considered a means of developing principled Christian leaders, one of four areas of mission focus adopted by the 2008 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body.

To Learn More

“Worthy Girls, Worthy Lives,” a resource for African-American girls ages 9 to 14 and young women that helps them understand their worth as children of God and learn to find their voices in the midst of unrealistic media portrayals of women and African-Americans. Visit, or call 443-621-9326.

* John W. Coleman, of Laurel, Md., is an independent, multi-media journalist in The United Methodist Church.

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