Article by Wendy McCance
Today I would like to introduce Karen Palka. Karen is a Michigan native and the Founder & Executive Director of A Beautiful Me®. She is a creative person who sees the value in each individual and loves to empower ALL women of ALL ages. I am thrilled to be able to interview her and I am sure you will enjoy learning more about who she is and what she does.
1. What made you decide to start A Beautiful Me?
In my early 40’s I asked a friend to help me with my work resume. Upon reading the bullet points he provided me on my qualifications, I returned the paper and asked who he was speaking of. I could not see in myself what others could - attributing to my own understanding that I had value and self-worth. Then as my children were growing, specifically my two daughters I was beginning to notice somethings in how young girls were viewing themselves. That’s about the time when I have an overwhelming feeling laid on my heart to provide something for girls to build their self-esteem.
2. What exactly is A Beautiful Me?
A Beautiful Me’s vision is to foster the self worth in ALL women of ALL ages. Our specific focus is to provide an interactive 4-part self-esteem workshop series for girls in 3rd-12th grades, with a pin-point target of 5th grade. We do this by traveling to the communities that request for our after-school programming.
3. What made you so passionate about helping girls with self-esteem issue?
Initially it was my personal experience, but after watching our young lady participants grow from our curriculum and see the data of an outcome based assessment - I then saw that we were filling a need. It’s going to take many of us to combat how the ‘world’ tells us who we are - and who we should be. I believe that we are made in God’s image and He does not make mistakes.
4. What background do you have that helps your cause?
My personal life-experience and passion for empowering others is my foundation. This often happens when non-profits are created. We built the curriculum with lots of research. We have outstanding consultants and we are surrounded with many advisors - including adolescent counselors. I am looking into additional education for myself as we grow the organization.
5. How long has A Beautiful Me been around?
A Beautiful Me was birthed on April 24, 2008 with Articles of Incorporation. The first workshop began January 2009. Our 501c3 was received February 2010. And our name was officially trademarked in December 2012.
6. What has been your best moment with the organization?
There are so many!
a.) This past spring I was presenting at career day for Regina High School in Warren, Michigan. In the midst of the presentation of my transition from graphic designer to founder of a non-profit, a high school teen raises her hand. She says “I was there!” You were where? “I was at your first workshop series.” I asked her name. “Autumn.”
That was an amazing moment, because our signature workshop series is four 2-hour workshops - totaling eight hours! My own children have attended many different activities and workshops through the years - but, how many could they remember being at. I believe that we planted a seed within her.
b.) Our participants are now returning as teen mentors at the workshops. Which is how the program is set up - to provide them with future leadership opportunities.
c.) Witnessing the growth of a girl, during our safe workshop environment, in one week to the next. And raising up other women to facilitate our workshops.
d.) Translating the print material to Spanish and bringing it to girls in Camotán, Guatemala - two years in a row. Standing beside a translator to deliver our workshop series and having connected our message with girls where I don’t speak their language. (July 2011 & July 2012)
7. What was your most challenging moment?
Short story: Proceeding with legal documents between Jessica Simpson and ourselves - over the name of our organization. (http://www.today.com/id/36276868/ns/today-today_entertainment/t/no-faking-simpson-sans-makeup/#.U-Ar0iBpJM)
Long story: The most challenging moment, was when I received ‘911’ texts from two of my key team mates in April 2010. We had just received our 501c3 status but they discovered on the cover of USA Today a story about Jessica Simpson who was going to launch a new initiative with Operation Smile called “A Beautiful Me” in May 2010. How can that be? What do we do? We are nobodies with only $1,500 in the bank compared to any celebrity. We asked for advice from another non-profit and were connected to Michigan Community Resources.
During this time ABMe received a contract with a school district’s after-school program for at-risk youth - which qualified us for pro-bono legal assistance. We were partnered with an intellectual properties attorney at Dykema in Washington D.C. They proceeded to hire a private investigator to ‘find’ Jessica Simpson. Correspondence began between her attorney in Connecticut and our attorney for 18 months. At that point she became pregnant and decided to retract moving forward and not do the project. This allowed our attorney to move forward with the trademark office and trademarking the name “A Beautiful Me”.
We were generously given pro-bono legal assistance for nearly three years. We are so grateful to Dykema and Michigan Community Resources for providing this gift.
Why I feel this is the most challenging is because when we raise others above us in value (eg: celebrities, sports players, politicians, doctors) - we can feel defeated. Instead it taught us to ask questions, think outside the box, and to not give up.
8. What is your most popular workshop or program? Why?
Our signature workshop series is: “A Beautiful Me Genuine Beauty 4-Part Workshop Series” This workshop series is why we began, it’s the trunk of our tree, and what we strive to complete in after-school programs and by supplementing girl scout troops.
We’ve tested and measured that it works best with a minimum of 20 participants. A part of our uniqueness is that we travel to the girls (school) - instead of having girls come to us.
9. You are incredibly busy with A Beautiful Me. Are there any other projects you are working on? What about Entirely Women? What is that all about?
Though the core of what we do are workshops for girls in after-school settings, we have had multiple women ask “Do you have a program for adults?” We have created other workshops including: Dare2Dream and a Mother/Daughter Retreat.
The branches of the tree are growing:
a.) Entirely Women - a webpage updated weekly in partnership with WGRT 102.3 FM to inspire and encourage other women. Currently it is made of five elements including a 60-second podcast that airs weekly on WGRT and can be heard on www.EntirelyWomen.com. My favorite element is “52 Real Women” - where 52 different women per year write one short blog to inspire & encourage other women.
b.) BLOOM - an annual night out for middle & high school girls in St. Clair County to discover their self worth in partnership with Power 88.3 FM/Hope 90.7 FM. This interactive musical event, with drama, sold out our first & second year (650 seats) and we know this is filling a need as we continue to plan for next year.
c.) A Beautiful Me Mobile Closet - as we work on the business plan for this branch of our tree, we are collecting new and gently used special occasion dresses. Our goal is to provide at-risk and low-income girls a low- to no-cost dress to wear for a special event - traveling to their community.
d.) A Beautiful Me eStore - we are revamping our website to provide our merchandise to be available for purchase online. This came about after the demand by many. For example: when I was traveling through the Amsterdam airport this past spring the security person stopped a moment, pointed at my sweatshirt and said “I want a sweatshirt like that”. The sweatshirt was our flourescent orange signature shirt that has our logo on it “A Beautiful Me”. Recently we hired a potter in Marysville, MI to create custom bowls that say “Hello Beautiful” and necklace pendants with affirmation sayings on them.
e.) Avant Garde Hair Show Fundraiser - our signature fundraiser is family-friendly. Held on the 2nd Sunday each November. This is the 4th year where everyday women get to walk a runway with extreme artistic hair created by licensed Michigan cosmetologists. This year’s theme is Dr. Seuss on November 9th.
10. What are some goals you hope to achieve in the future?
a.) Increase our donor base. Because many of whom we serve are at-risk/low-income, most of our programming is offered at low- to no-cost and we need others that can come alongside us as monthly donors of $25.
b.) We are striving toward, in a sustainably manner, this vision: By 2024, that every 5th grade girl in St. Clair County, Michigan attend A Beautiful Me workshop series (free) as a right of passage. These workshops will bring high school teens in at a 4:1 ratio and as the participants advance to high school, they can return as a teen mentor. This is a pro-active approach vs. a reactive one that propels a person with low self-esteem to self-harm and eating disorders, to name just a few.
c.) Provide a way for girls to stay connected with us - video series to inspire.
11. If you could give some advice to anyone wanting to pursue something they are passionate about, what would you tell them?
GO! Benchmark! (eg: what else is out there that already exists - don’t reinvent the wheel) Trust your core! Ask questions! Bring in others to help - a team - it’s hard to do it alone. Don’t let fear win!
12. Is there anything else you would like people to know about your programs?
To bring our outcome-based after-school workshop series to different schools we need parent/teacher advocates to “be the voice” to bring it to their school. Our signature series costs $75 per person with a minimum of 20 participants and we work with schools so that the cost doesn’t fall on the youth - through fundraising. I’d gladly speak before the PTO and share the value of this investment.
Our organization was built in a collective manner, meaning that many people contributed with sharing a song, video, idea, and they were used to what we provide. We welcome ideas and messages, but would love for others to consider joining our pool of volunteers. Our team of volunteers are important to us and just as valuable as ‘our girls’.
To contact Wendy McCance about a writing or social media assignment, interview or speaking engagement, please email her at: [email protected]