For children to succeed they must break free of the boxes society puts them in. This was the message presented by Erica Ford, keynote speaker at Girls Inc. of Carpinteria’s annual Women of Inspiration luncheon on April 3. Ford has spent 35 years working to curb violence in crime-stricken areas of New York City, and she encouraged the 300-person Carpinteria audience to support organizations like Girls Inc. that teach young people that stereotypes and prejudices do not define them.

Ford shared the spotlight with several other accomplished women, including local honorees Asa Olsson, Nini Seaman and the Mericos Foundation, all of whom have played critical roles in Girls Inc.’s efforts to ensure young women don’t find themselves trapped in the boxes Ford described.

Olsson was born and raised in Sweden and worked as an actress there before moving to the U.S. in 1980. She started working at Girls Inc. in 1995 and spent 17 years developing the organization’s impressive theater program. She was also instrumental in bringing the Girls Inc. National Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy Program to Carpinteria Middle School, where she continues to teach nearly 200 sixth-graders annually. Olsson, who has two daughters of her own, spoke passionately about importance of allowing young women to be who they are. “These are terrific girls,” she said, “and they all come out (of Girls Inc.) strong, smart and bold.”

Seaman, a former Girls Inc. boardmember, co-founded the Women of Inspiration event and chaired it for five years. Under her leadership, the luncheon went from raising $2,000 to $80,000 for the local nonprofit. Seaman worked as a fine artist in Los Angeles before moving to Carpinteria and giving her energy to several nonprofits. She also has two daughters, and believes fervently in Girls Inc.’s mission.

The Mericos Foundation was honored for its multi-year support of Girls Inc.’s Eureka Program, which provides hands-on experiences in science, math and technology to a small cohort of young women and introduces them to various careers and colleges.

Three high school members of Girls Inc. emceed the event, showcasing the nonprofit’s success in developing young women capable of maintaining poise and confidence in front of an audience that filled the entire gymnasium. Maria Zamora, 2016 Junior Carpinterian of the Year; Ana Delgado, recent recipient of a $20,000 Girls Inc. National Scholarship; and Alitza Gonzalez, Carpinteria High School freshman and member of the Eureka Program, told the audience what Girls Inc. has meant in their lives.

Zamora and Delgado, both seniors at CHS, have dazzled Girls Inc. audiences for years. Gonzalez, who was new to the event’s limelight, had an opportunity to tell her story. She is the daughter of two immigrant parents who didn’t graduate from high school. Nonetheless, her mother and other strong women in her family have always inspired her to follow her passions. Last week she joined her Eureka peers and Girls Inc. staff on a trip to Los Angeles to visit five colleges. Eureka is giving her the tools to get into college and work toward her dream of becoming an immigration lawyer. “I feel I can do anything,” she said.

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