Four years ago, Hannah Cervantes didn't enjoy speaking in front of her class. Now a sixth-grader at Terman Middle School in Palo Alto, Hannah, 11, is rubbing shoulders with presidential candidates and exudes confidence and independence, according to her father, Charlie Cervantes.
With the help of Girls to Women, a tax-exempt youth-development organization, Hannah is well on her way to achieving her goal of becoming a veterinarian. She is reading 250-page books in a matter of a few hours, winning schoolwide art competitions, and, on occasion, helping her little brother, Chuck, with his homework. In November, Hannah was among a small group of girls selected to meet Hillary Clinton at a Los Altos fundraiser.
Girls to Women caters to girls ages 6 to 14 years and their families, offering homework assistance, mentoring, science and technology education, extracurricular activities and referrals to social services. Since 2007, Girls to Women has served nearly 800 girls in the East Palo Alto area.
The organization was born out of a need of single mothers for after-school program for their daughters, according to founder, executive director and former city Mayor Patricia Foster.
"I could see the benefit, knowing the issues in East Palo Alto," said Foster, a resident since 1980.
Charlie Cervantes heard about Girls to Women through word of mouth and said Hannah has found in it a community of girls her age as well as young-adult mentors. Volunteers work to tailor lessons and teaching methods to the interests and personality of the child, he said.
"The methods and techniques that the staff use are way more effective than mine," he said. "They gave her different options (for) solving the problems."
The organization currently serves about 60 girls a year, the majority of whom are low-income and of Hispanic, African-American or Pacific Islander descent. Foster said many volunteers and staff members attend area schools, such as Eastside College Preparatory and University of San Francisco. Additionally, many are of the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds as the girls, which helps greatly, Foster added.
"Our girls are mainly Latinas," Foster said. "When they have a tutor who is of the same walk of life, people they can relate to ... (it) makes a world of difference to them. They feel connected to them almost instantly."
Girls to Women focuses primarily on after-school homework assistance, but it is also part of the MAGIC (More Active Girls in Computing) mentoring program, which aims to teach girls relevant skills in computing and technology. Once a week for an hour for part of the year, girls are paired with mentors who work individually with the girls.
"Hannah can master the computer better than I can, and I work in an office," Charlie Cervantes said. "She's shown me some tricks."
Foster explained that many people still hold the misconception that engineering and computer science are not options for girls. Girls to Women's educational programs aim to change that thinking.
"When I think of my upbringing there was never a chance in the world for me to be an engineer. But my brother is an engineer," Foster said. "(We) bring out an engineer to work with the girls. ... The girls work on a science project of their own choice."
The girls also learned Web design, blogging, and coding two weeks out of the summer.
"They each got to choose a topic of their personal interest and really delve into that topic," said Girls to Women Program Coordinator Kristyn Crouse. "Some really great websites came out of it."
But success in Girls to Women is not measured solely on academic achievement, Foster said.
"When the girls get through with their homework here during their school year, they go into activities. It's important for children to develop a hobby early in life," she said. "We expose them to as much as possible."
Girls learn skills such as gardening, digital photography and blogging. In the summer, they visited the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach -- a trip funded by the San Mateo Parks Foundation, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford and the Chabot Space and Science Center.
Girls in elementary school had a handful of sessions with Bay Area photographer Van Nguyen Stone and were faced with the question "What Is Wisdom?" Their answers will be presented through photographs and displayed side-by-side with answers from a group in Carrefour, Haiti, in mid-January. Girls also participated in every aspect of artist Linda Gass' residency at Cooley Landing. In conjunction with Gass, girls are working to paint silk for a community quilt.
Crouse, who has been with Girls to Women for about a year, said the group provides a "safe space" for youth to make friends and work through tough issues -- not just related to academics but also to growing up.
Apart from its work with girls, Girls to Women supports the girls' families through referrals to housing, food, social justice and immigration resources.
Girls to Women was supported this year with a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, and last year, more than 100 volunteers contributed nearly 1,000 hours.
"Without that support, we would not be in business," Foster said.
In 2014, the organization garnered $70,000 in grant revenue and about $60,000 from individual donors.
With increased donations, Foster said she hopes to integrate more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in the after-school program, alongside involvement in the Technovation Challenge -- a 12-week technology entrepreneurship competition that tasks girls with designing and coding a mobile application that combats a community issue.
"As I look to inspiring the girls and guiding them," Foster said, "it's not just for jobs, but to develop the whole person."
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.