Sue Schooner was a workaholic auto executive when a group of middle school girls “sort of started taking over my life.” What began as a volunteer stint working with girls at Peace Neighborhood Center and the Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan (now the Jean Ledwith King Women’s Center) became a passion. In 2003 Schooner founded Girls Group to support young women who face obstacles to completing high school. Its goal is to first get them through high school–and then to help them become first-generation college graduates.
Schooner retired at age forty-eight to run the nonprofit full time. Now fifty-seven, a petite woman with shoulder-length hair, she has no regrets about giving up her career. “These kids got me to open my heart, open my mind, open my soul,” she says about the organization that now serves 300 young women year-round. “I’m a different person than I was before.”
Schooner works without pay, supported by seven full-time employees and thirteen social work interns. They teach the girls academic and life skills, maintaining healthy relationships, and mental and physical health. But more than anything, Schooner says, Girls Group provides a “safe space” to share for its participants, who may be referred by teachers, social workers, or principals, or invited by friends already in the group.
“We talk about things others don’t want to talk about,” says staff member Yatesha Robinson–like the eighth-grader who recently confided that she was thinking about becoming sexually active. (The timely notice allowed her mentors and parents to intervene.)
Mentors are available round the clock to talk, text, or even to pick up a girl for a visit. Programs in schools and at Peace teach everything from conflict management to self-care. “The reality is these girls are super smart, but if you can’t manage your anger and you can’t self-soothe it doesn’t matter how smart you are,” Schooner says. “You still have to be able to focus in class, not get in fights with other kids, and do your homework.”
She sees the group as supporting parents, not replacing them. “These girls have the same hopes and dreams and desires as other kids,” explains Schooner. “And their parents do too. Their parents get a bad rap. [But] their parents work hard. They love hard.”
At a recent Friday afternoon workshop, thirty high schoolers from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti eat pizza, then pull their chairs into a circle to discuss self-esteem and self-love. On poster board, they scribble examples of negative self-talk–“You have anger issues,” “You’re not smart”–and messages to counter the negativity–“You make people smile,” “You work hard toward your goals.” When the facilitator asks how they counter negative messages, replies include talking to friends and listening to Beyonce. The meeting ends with “affirmation bags,” which the girls fill with slips of paper listing the positive attributes they identified and affirmations shared by other members of the group.
Amaya Gray, a Huron High freshman, says she learned to talk about her feelings in the group. “It’s been like a family to me,” she says. “I can trust them, I can be vulnerable.”
Before she joined, Gray says, “I didn’t think I even wanted to go to �xADcollege”–but over spring break Girls Group sponsored her on a bus tour of historically black colleges. Interested in psychology and business, she now has her eye on Spelman, the prestigious Atlanta women’s school.
Schooner was born in Boston, but her family (she has a brother) moved almost every year for her father’s Army career. She describes her relationship with her parents as “performance-based”–they never told her they loved her. “I was supposed to get all As, or else … I was not to raise my voice, I was not to cry.”
She worked forty hours a week in high school, graduated at sixteen, and worked three jobs to pay her tuition at Ithaca College. Her mother dismissed her dream of getting an MBA, but a mentor encouraged her. She applied to the top ten business schools, got into every one, and went to Harvard.
She moved to Michigan in 1983 to work in finance for Chrysler; she later was chief financial officer for Textron Automotive and ran a consulting firm. Divorced and childless, a three-time cancer survivor, she says that Girls Group has nurtured her along with its young participants. She recalls a mother-daughter workshop when the girls were leaning against their moms, causing her to break into tears as she realized she’d missed out on that physical closeness. “The moms in the group took turns holding me,” she recalls.
Ayona Van Horn-Lee, twenty-three, says Schooner is “like an aunt.” One of the group’s first members, she remembers being “picked on because I did my homework” in school. Now the MSU computer science grad works at Ford. Her twin sister, Asia, is at EMU studying music production–an interest sparked in the group. “Girls Group broadened our perception of the future while still having fun,” Ayona says. One recent field trip took some of the girls to a performance by African American ballerina Misty Copeland.
By the time they reach their senior year, Schooner says, girls are “micromanaged” by their mentors. This helps explain why every Girls Group member to date has graduated high school. Eight have completed four-year college degrees, four earned associate’s degrees, and seventy-five are currently enrolled in college, with fifteen more starting this fall.
In college, they are mentored through another Girls Group program, Women of Purpose. At WCC, for example, Schooner and Girls Group board member Joyce Hunter match young women with mentors from The Links, an organization of African American professional women. “Sue is open to meeting people and learning,” explains Hunter. “She doesn’t act like she has all the answers.”
Next year, Schooner plans to expand Girls Group into the Ypsilanti schools. “Girls Group became my family,” she says, “and it gets bigger and bigger all the time.”