As a school guidance counselor in Baltimore County, Debbi Weinberg heard one personal horror story after another. Over the course of nearly two decades, one fact became clear: The notion of “Bloom where you’re planted” was hardly an option for the at-risk high school girls she was working with. They were ensnared in the cycle of poverty that they were born into—and particularly disturbing to Weinberg was the rate at which teen girls were getting pregnant.
Weinberg felt she had to do something more to help. And so, the Girls’ Empowerment Mission (GEM) was born in 2004, starting in the form of a two-week summer camp. Amidst a full agenda of field trips, inspiring guest speakers, and craft projects, the group of 14 girls flourished. When it was over, her GEM “guinea pigs” were knocking at her office door: “Mrs. Weinberg, what’s next?”
It’s a question the Baltimore County native has never stopping asking herself. After five years, Weinberg left her salaried role with the school district to run GEM full-time. Today, as the executive director, she’s grateful for the support of an amazing staff and board, as well as GEM’s partner, the Living Classrooms Foundation. GEM is now a three-year program, with plentiful perks for the 14 freshmen girls accepted each year.
Through regular meetings (free meals included), a revolving door of guest speakers, mentorships, team-building activities, and six overnight retreats per year, GEM helps to lay a positive foundation for success in the girls’ lives. It’s not just in the tangible stats—like the fact that GEM participants are nearly two times as likely to attend college than their peers—but also in the confidence gained and the lifelong friendships formed.
“The sisterhood that happens is such a beautiful outcome, one that I never even intended,” Weinberg says. “Their struggles may be different, but the girls can all relate to having adversity in their life. Supporting each other through that is an incredible bonding experience.”
Weinberg, too, has forged unbreakable bonds: She says she has two sons but has gained 165 daughters (“And all of them have my phone number!”). For Weinberg, GEM’s 15th anniversary this year means truly getting to enjoy the fruits of her labor.
The original GEM girls are now turning 30, and the pride of seeing them blossom into successful, compassionate adults has been “indescribable.” Some are now mothers themselves and one alum has a young daughter who calls Weinberg “Bubbie”—that’s Yiddish for grandmother.
“Many people don’t realize how much poverty exists in Baltimore County,” says Weinberg. “It’s always struck me as unjust that there are the haves and have-nots. With GEM, my goal is to level the playing field, to take these young women with potential and help them shine as brilliantly as we know they’re capable of shining.”