When Athena White lost her only child, the grief nearly consumed her.
The void left after her son’s passing was, at first, one filled with anger. "He was 25," she explains. "My son was my life. I was a lost soul."
Athena might have felt lost, but she also soon found kindness where she least expected it: at work. Her coworkers at Old Navy, recognizing her pain, quickly stepped in to support her.
"They could’ve easily said, 'I’m sorry you’re having a hard time, here’s some flowers,'" she says. Instead of empty condolences, they showed up in a big way. "They said, 'How much time do you need? What can we do?'"
And it wasn’t just the compassion of those around her that made an impact. It was their belief in Athena herself — in particular, their belief that she had a story worth telling.
Athena White in an Old Navy store. All images provided by Gap Inc.
It was that belief that led Athena’s district manager to offer her an opportunity that would change her life.
He saw her not as a lost soul, but as someone with real potential for leadership. That’s when he connected Athena to This Way Ahead, Old Navy's internship program that would allow her to transform her pain into purpose.
"I didn’t know at the time, but it’s definitely turned my life around, being part of [This Way Ahead]."
This Way Ahead is a paid internship program for young adults that offers career and skills training programs by partnering with nonprofits and connecting young adults with mentors like Athena.After 10 weeks, interns walk away with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace and, most importantly, the connection and care to realize their own self-worth.
It’s that connection that Athena says helped her cope with her grief.
"They’re looking for someone to listen to them; they’re looking for direction, someone that’s just there," she explains. "I lost my son, but I gained so many young adults in my life ... it makes me feel whole. It fills a void."
It’s a tradition of giving back, Athena says, that began with her mother and her son. "My mom was the biggest cheerleader I ever had," she says. And her son, too, had the biggest heart of anyone she knew.
"It’s grown into something bigger than myself," she explains. Mentoring youth helps her carry on the loving legacy left behind by her mother and son and, in turn, allows every youth she inspires to go on and make an impact too.
Athena White with former This Way Ahead intern, and now Old Navy Associate, Yazmeen Owens.
"My mission, in turn, is how do I pay it forward? How do I give back?"
For Athena, giving back isn’t just about giving these youth an internship. It’s about creating a connection that allows them to thrive.
"We’ve all made mistakes," she shares. She sees her role as one where she not only offers skills in the workplace, but gives the genuine support and care that many of the youth lack.
"Sometimes, these young kids, they don’t have the support. [They need] to know that there’s somebody that truly cares."
One intern that Athena remembers started out in the program as shy and withdrawn. At first, Athena wondered if she even wanted to be there.
"She wasn’t open to trusting," Athena explains. "I kept insisting, in my mind, there was something more to this young lady. My mission was to open her eyes and open her heart."
And with time, the two formed a special bond.
"She just started to warm up," Athena recalls. "Every time she’d see me, her eyes would just light up." And not only did she complete the program — she now works with Athena at Old Navy and is returning to school. "She’s a whole different person now," Athena raves.
And stories like hers aren’t uncommon — 74% of graduates from the This Way Ahead program receive job offers upon completion, with a retention rate twice that of their peers.
Yazmeen Owens and Athena White.
For youth in the program, particularly those from disadvantaged communities, This Way Ahead offers one opportunity that can transform the rest of their lives.
It’s an opportunity that Athena is honored to be a part of. "They were [all] seeking something more than a job," she explains.
For some, what they seek is real support and connection. For others, like one memorable alumni from Oakland, they’re looking for a shot at a brighter, better future.
"He had never been outside of Oakland," Athena shares. "Now he’s in college in Indiana. Whatever it takes, he’s going to be a doctor. He [just needed] to get out of the neighborhood."
And that's why, Athena says, programming like this needs direct support. "We have to keep the program alive," she explains.
And with the right support, not only will the program survive — it can thrive. Old Navy is in the process of expanding the program through a donation campaign on Black Friday 2017; for every $1 cozy sock purchased, Old Navy will match it with a donation to Boys & Girls Clubs, up to $1 million. These donations will expand their offerings to create more career opportunities for youth.
For a customer, it might seem like a small gesture. But it adds up. And for Athena and the youth she mentors, those small gestures mean a continued impact well into the future.
Thanks to the support she received in her darkest hour, Athena is now an unstoppable force for good in the lives of countless youth.
"Every year, I want more kids," she laughs.
When asked what she’s learned from her experiences as a mentor, she recalls the impact that one person can have on others. "Take a moment, give somebody your time, listen to somebody," she shares.
"You never know what you’re offering; you never know what someone is going to take from that conversation. Be mindful that people are listening, they are watching. You can change somebody’s life."
And for the kids mentored by Athena, with futures now brimming with possibility, there’s no greater lesson than that.