+

tory burch

True

When Deidra Mayberry was a child, she struggled with reading. Feeling embarrassed and ashamed, she did her best to hide it. And she was pretty good at hiding it. As her family moved around a lot, due to her parents' military career, she adapted and kept hiding it — making it all the way through school without anyone really noticing.

After graduating from high school, she started looking for support to improve her reading skills.

"I was turned away because I was over the age of 17, and other private options like one-on-one tutoring were financially out of reach for me."

Deidra promised that one day she'd do something to fix it. After struggling for years, and eventually finding support, she started a nonprofit to help other adults facing their own challenges with literacy. Now she's striving to help the almost 43,000,000 adults who still are struggling. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 21 percent of adults in the United States (about 43 million) fall into the illiterate/functionally illiterate category.

For Deidra, college was the first time she experienced and understood what functional illiteracy was. Someone who is illiterate is unable to read or write at all, but someone who is functionally illiterate has some reading skills — they're just not strong enough to manage daily living and employment tasks.

She was able to graduate by taking extra summer semesters, spending long nights studying, changing her major when it got too hard, and getting help from her dad.

"I was so proud that I actually made it through college and graduated," Deidra says. "But once I started to apply for jobs, reality kicked in fast. I never truly fixed my literacy problems. Instead, I found ways to work around them in order to spare myself the embarrassment and shame that I already felt daily."

"I relied heavily on movies to teach me and give me exposure to things in life that would help me relate to others," she says. "This caused me to live a life of fear, limitations, and hopelessness."

"I felt unworthy because I knew I had this big secret — and thought if people knew, they would see that I had no value."

Deidra continued to live like this for years until she had a lightbulb moment.

"I was working so hard to hide my literacy struggle in order to make it work, but I asked myself, 'What if I worked just as hard to fix it?'"

She found the courage to tell a friend, who began tutoring her. "The hope, courage, and confidence she helped me find was the beautiful moment of empowerment that reminded me to create and provide a resource for people just like me."

That's exactly what she did. On March 12, 2020, she and another friend decided to start a nonprofit to help other adults that were functionally illiterate. And even though COVID-19 shut down businesses and sent people into lockdown the very next day, she didn't let it stop her.

"I just believed God was with me and the time was still now because people have been waiting for this," she says.

She launched Reading to New Heights, an organization that teaches adults the fundamentals of reading with one-on-one, confidential and virtual tutoring sessions with certified educators.

"The curriculum that our educators teach from allows our adult learners to revisit the fundamentals of reading and comprehension as if they are learning them for the first time," Deidra says. "Basic reading foundations such as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, spelling, vocabulary and comprehension are exactly what adults struggling with illiteracy need in order to build competent literacy skills and fill the gaps that illiteracy causes in education."

And most importantly, these services are provided at no cost, so that anyone who needs them has access.

"Though illiteracy and functional illiteracy can affect anyone, people in low-income and underserved communities of color are more likely to be limited in education, income, and workplace advancement opportunities because of it."

"Illiteracy and functional illiteracy can be directly linked to higher prison populations, lower household incomes, and inaccessibility to quality healthcare," Deidra explains. "By committing to developing the fundamentals of reading, our adult learners overcome both the psychological and environmental limitations of illiteracy."

Since they launched, the nonprofit has been featured on Fox 4 News, which gave them the exposure they needed to grow from three adult program participants to 20 — and they hope to continue growing. They have also been accepted into an Incubator Program with the United Way, which is designed to support them while they build their business.

Deidra is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to her new and growing nonprofit.

"It's kind of ironic, the very thing I was ashamed of and thought I had to hide for years was the one thing that, once I shared it, not only freed me but gave me hope and provided a way to help others," Deidra says. "I love that my story has been about helping others find the courage to share and take the first step to start their literacy journey."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Deidra? Nominate her today!

True

Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

Keep Reading Show less
True

When Molly Reeser was a student at Michigan State University, she took a job mucking horse stalls to help pay for classes. While she was there, she met a 10-year-old girl named Casey, who was being treated for cancer, and — because both were animal lovers — they became fast friends.

Two years later, Casey died of cancer.

"Everyone at the barn wanted to do something to honor her memory," Molly remembers. A lot of suggestions were thrown out, but Molly knew that there was a bigger, more enduring way to do it.

"I saw firsthand how horses helped Casey and her family escape from the difficult and terrifying times they were enduring. I knew that there must be other families who could benefit from horses in the way she and her family had."

Molly approached the barn owners and asked if they would be open to letting her hold a one-day event. She wanted to bring pediatric cancer patients to the farm, where they could enjoy the horses and peaceful setting. They agreed, and with the help of her closest friends and the "emergency" credit card her parents had given her, Molly created her first Camp Casey. She worked with the local hospital where Casey had been a patient and invited 20 patients, their siblings and their parents.

The event was a huge success — and it was originally meant to be just that: a one-day thing. But, Molly says, "I believe Casey had other plans."

One week after the event, Molly received a letter from a five-year-old boy who had brain cancer. He had been at Camp Casey and said it was "the best day of his life."

"[After that], I knew that we had to pull it off again," Molly says. And they did. Every month for the next few years, they threw a Camp Casey. And when Molly graduated, she did the most terrifying thing she had ever done and told her parents that she would be waitressing for a year to see if it might be possible to turn Camp Casey into an actual nonprofit organization. That year of waitressing turned into six, but in the end she was able to pull it off: by 2010, Camp Casey became a non-profit with a paid staff.

"I am grateful for all the ways I've experienced good luck in my life and, therefore, I believe I have a responsibility to give back. It brings me tremendous joy to see people, animals, or things coming together to create goodness in a world that can often be filled with hardships."

Camp Casey serves 1500 children under the age of 18 each year in Michigan. "The organization looks different than when it started," Molly says. "We now operate four cost-free programs that bring accessible horseback riding and recreational services to children with cancer, sickle cell disease, and other life-threatening illnesses."

Keep Reading Show less
True

Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."