Faith Collins, 21, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, was feeling deadline pressure as she scrambled to secure funding for a field trip for 145 elementary school girls. The trip to Pitt is meant to expose the girls, all from at-risk communities, to education and career options ranging from law and chemistry to the business of fashion.
As coordinator of the event scheduled for next Saturday, Ms. Collins had the itinerary set but she still needed to nail down donations to feed the girls and about 45 college-age women who, like Ms. Collins, serve as their mentors.
A nonprofit that facilitates the mentorship program, Strong Women, Strong Girls provided guidelines on how to plan the field trip, "but intentionally doesn't give us the money," said Ms. Collins, who has been involved with the organization since her freshman year.
A target goal of Strong Women, Strong Girls is to prepare the college volunteers for work challenges in the real world. "We have to raise our own funds," she said.
While the organization doesn't allocate dollars for projects like field trips, it does match the college-age mentors with female mentors in the workforce who coach them about careers and issues they encounter.
So in the midst of soliciting lunch donations, Ms. Collins scheduled dinner with her mentor, Taylor Pennels, a pharmaceutical sales manager with Sanofi-Aventis Biosurgery.
"It will be good to talk about what I'm doing with the field trip, what I have planned and to not feel so overwhelmed," said Ms. Collins, who typically chats with Ms. Pennels every two weeks over a meal in Oakland.
As a college volunteer with Strong Women, Strong Girls, Ms. Collins benefits from both sides of the program: She mentors girls who are 8 to 11 years old and in turn is coached by a young professional.
"It's good to have a positive role model who isn't your mom. It's nice to see how well she's done and ask her what she's had to go through and what it's like to work with her peers," Ms. Collins said.
Pittsburgh is one of only three cities where Strong Women, Strong Girls operates. The organization is based in Boston, where it was founded in 2000 as a student group at Harvard University; it also has programs in Miami.
It launched here in 2007 with a student chapter at Carnegie Mellon University and now includes the program office based in the Hill District, and chapters at CMU, Pitt, Point Park University, Carlow University and Duquesne University.
In this region, about 150 college women currently mentor 425 girls at 26 after-school programs in the city of Pittsburgh, Homestead, Wilkinsburg and in the Sto-Rox School District, said Amy Parker, executive director of Strong Women, Strong Girls in Pittsburgh.
On the other end of the program, about 40 young professional women provide coaching to the college students. And in yet another component introduced in Pittsburgh last year, women who have already ascended the corporate ladder to high-ranking positions will share leadership pointers with young working professionals.
"We are a multigenerational mentoring program," Ms. Parker said.
At the after-school programs, two or three college students meet weekly with groups of 10 to 12 girls for 90 minutes. They oversee activities designed to promote girls' self-confidence and provide lessons in perseverance and how to overcome obstacles.
In one session, for instance, the girls read a short biography of Cynthia Breazeal, a pioneering robotics researcher based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then the girls constructed their own robots and recorded their thoughts and questions in journals.
"We have found the elementary girls getting increased self-esteem and aspirations for college and community service. They observe the college women, and sometimes it's the first time they've met someone who has gone to college. ... It gives them a frame of reference," Ms. Parker said.
For Ms. Collins, mentoring the younger girls has been an opportunity to help dispel female stereotypes that can get in the way of their achievement. "I don't like girls talking behind each others' backs. I want to alleviate that. We want to set girls' aspirations higher."
An anthropology major who has interned in the Strong Women, Strong Girls office, Ms. Collins expects to earn a minor in social work and a certificate in women's studies. After graduation, she wants to enter a volunteer program such as AmeriCorps. Eventually, she'd like to become a guidance counselor.
Her mentorship posts have ranged from city schools to the Best of the Batch Foundation in Homestead, where she helped develop programs to help fifth-grade girls make a smooth transition to middle school.
"For the college girls, it has increased their desire to participate in community service," Ms. Parker said. "A lot of them are seeing a side of the community they haven't seen before because many of them are from privileged backgrounds."
On the professional side, Strong Women, Strong Girls relied solely on volunteers to mentor the college students until last year when it launched the Strong Leaders initiative. That effort encourages companies to nominate high-potential emerging female leaders, typically in their 30s and early 40s, to serve as mentors. Corporations pay $1,800 to sponsor the female coaches; participants to date have included representatives from Giant Eagle, Ansaldo STS, Joy Global, U.S. Steel, Curtiss-Wright and Eat'n Park.
"We teach them basic coaching skills they practice in the safe space of the nonprofit world with college women," said Christy Uffelman, vice president, employee and organization development at Mascaro Development Co. who spearheaded the Strong Leaders program. "Then they can apply those skills at work so their organizations are getting leadership skills back. Companies want to engage those leaders."
Another bonus for companies that sponsor mentors, she said, is access to potential campus recruits. "These are high-potential college women ... who are extremely competitive."
The Strong Leaders program provides mentorship to the young female professionals in the form of roundtable discussions with established female executives about topics ranging from networking to juggling work-life balance. Upcoming guest speakers are Theresa Bone, vice president and corporate controller, EQT; and Candi Castleberry-Singleton, chief inclusion and diversity officer, UPMC.
Based on the success of its pilot year in Pittsburgh, Strong Women, Strong Girls has added the Strong Leaders program in Boston, said Ms. Uffelman, who is a national board member and serves on the Pittsburgh advisory council.
According to its 990 federal tax reporting form for the fiscal year ended in August 2011, combined revenues for Strong Women, Strong Girls in all three cities were $1.1 million, generated mainly from foundation grants and individual contributions.
In Pittsburgh, the annual programming budget is about $400,000, Ms. Parker said. Besides local foundation support and contributions, the nonprofit raises money through several fundraisers.
With steady demand from more elementary schools that want programming, and interest in launching college chapters at Robert Morris and Chatham universities, "Our biggest challenge is fundraising," said Ms. Parker, who oversees what she described as a "very lean staff" of two program managers and two interns.
For Ms. Parker, 37, who joined the organization in February, running a nonprofit has been a dramatic but fulfilling change after a decadelong career in law.
The New Hampshire native and Pitt law school grad practiced commercial and employment litigation at firms including Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Fulbright & Jaworski, McGuire Woods, and Fox Rothschild, and was a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer.
But after accepting a board position at Lydia's Place -- a nonprofit that provides counseling and resources for female criminal offenders and their families -- Ms. Parker found herself trying to learn as much as she could about planned charitable giving and fundraising.
After attending a planned giving seminar, she said, "I came away more energized than I had been in years. That was my 'aha moment' when I knew nonprofit management was what I wanted to do with my career."
Though the salary is well below what she earned as a lawyer and the nonprofit's tight budget means she handles all her own correspondence and administrative work, "It's been really positive. I haven't looked back," she said.
"I deal with so many things that are so much more important than what I was dealing with in law. ... I'm doing things to impact the lives of girls in our community."
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.