February 22, 2018

Thanks to a Maryland nonprofit, these girls will one day run the world

Community Bridges empowers young women from diverse backgrounds through mentoring and educational support

Photos courtesy of Community Bridges


Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.

Community Bridges works to empower girls from diverse backgrounds in eastern Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. Now over 20 years old, the community organization offers mentoring, college and career support, educational learning trips, and service opportunities. Community Bridges also offers workshops and resources for struggling families in their area.

Executive Director Shannon Babe-Thomas has been serving her community nearly her entire life. We asked her to tell us about what inspires her, how Community Bridges serves its members, and what’s next. The following is an edited and condensed version of that. To learn more about Community Bridges, follow @CB_EmpowerGirls on Twitter.

How did you start your community work?

Community Service has been something that has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was just 8 years old, I remember sitting with my grandfather, who was president of his Lions Club, and learning about the community work they were doing and how exciting it all sounded to me. From that moment I started organizing community events like collecting can goods, making lunches for local shelters, and organizing community days for neighborhood children. As I got older, I would travel every summer and participate in the Appalachia Service Project, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, and I participated as a local title holder in the Miss America Organization with the platform of, “Start Helping Against Poverty Everywhere.” After college I started working at Girl Scouts Nation’s Capital where I worked for 14 years before becoming the executive director of Community Bridges. It was during that time that I developed my love and passion for girl leadership and inclusion.

Describe the community you serve.

Community Bridges serves girls ages 9-18 who come from an array of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Today our girls represent Latina, African, Caribbean, black, white, Asian, and multi-racial backgrounds. Eighty-two of Community Bridges families earn an annual household income of $48,415 or less and have one or more children in the Montgomery County Public School system. This means that Community Bridges families do not meet the basic Family Self-Sufficiency Standards determined by the Department of Health and Human Services of Montgomery County ($86,580 to meet the basic needs for a family of three). This often means that parents of our participants work two or three jobs to provide for their families. The result, and a major factor in our program design: Community Bridges girls may be unsupervised and without the role models needed to grow up as healthy productive citizens in our communities.

What inspired you to do this work?

I became inspired to ensure all girls were included and had the opportunity to grow and learn after I met Amelia in 2005. She volunteered at Camp Diva, a community-based camp that I was running for girls who were not currently involved in Girl Scouts. Amelia has autism and when I first met her she was very quiet, reserved, and uncomfortable being around people she did not know. I ensured that Amelia had the accommodations she needed to earn her Student Service Learning hours while growing as a leader. Her first year she volunteered with the arts and crafts leader and prepared the supplies for each day. By the summer of 2007, Amelia was standing in front of all 200 campers leading camp songs. Amelia inspired me to ensure that every girl regardless of her abilities had opportunities to succeed and I started the Including All Girls Initiative. Today Amelia is employed at a school that serves children with disabilities.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

Community Bridges believes that every girl has the potential to succeed when she gains resources and exposure to every opportunity within her reach. We believe that through bridging our girls with their schools, the community and their families, we can support each girl in achieving her goals and ending the cycle of poverty for their families. Over the course of fiscal year 2017, Community Bridges Girls Program served 239 adolescent and teen girls in grades 4-12 with school-based programs at nine schools in Montgomery County. Girls participated in weekly after-school sessions for an average of 2.5 hours/day for 33 weeks (a total of 684 hours or programming delivered/year), with activities and discussions targeting academic excellence, positive leadership, personal health, and team-building. On average, girls participated in 24 field trips, college tours, service opportunities, and other community engagement activities that exposed them to new resources, networks, and opportunities. One-hundred percent of high school seniors graduated on time and were accepted to/enrolled in a college and/or university.

In addition, I’m a member of the Downtown Silver Spring Rotary Club where we have taken on the service of literacy in our community. We started Story Town, a book nook at Montgomery Knolls Elementary School where students go twice a month to pick out a book to add to their own personal library. We are distributing over 10,000 books a year and ensuring that every student has at least 20 new books each year.

What do you love about your community?

Montgomery County is an amazing place to live, work, and play. The county is home to more than 1 million people and is one of the most diverse communities in the country. Our diversity is our strength and it’s what brings the community together. Our economy is a major center of commerce and one of Maryland’s largest business hubs. Our school system continually ranks among the best in the country. Montgomery County boasts a highly educated workforce that has a college degree rate that far exceeds the national average. I’m proud to not only live in the county but that I get to run a nonprofit in the county that work to ensure that girls in the county have opportunities to become its future leaders.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

I want people to know that Montgomery County is an amazing place to be because of the diversity that surrounds us everyday. In Montgomery County we are surrounded by people of different social backgrounds, races, sexual preference, and political parties. It makes us open to see different perspectives and to have so many different amazing friends.

What leader or leaders inspire you?

I look up to all of the women leaders who’ve come before me and who are currently doing amazing things to advocate for both women and girls in our society. I’ve been inspired professionally by the former CEO of Girl Scouts Nation’s Capital, Jan Verhage. Shortly after starting at the Girl Scouts in 2002, she recognized the potential I had to one day be an executive director. I listened to her advice and took note of her leadership style. After becoming an executive director, she was one of the first people I reached out to. If it wasn’t for her words of encouragement and opportunities to grow and learn, I’m not sure that I’d be in the position I am today. I’ve also been inspired by Michelle Obama. I admire the work that she has done to develop the Let Girls Learn Initiative which recognizes that adolescent girls face multiple challenges in pursuing an education. The initiative employs a holistic approach to change the perception of the value of girls at the individual, community, and institutional levels; fosters an enabling environment for adolescent girls’ education; and engages and equips girls to make important contributions to society.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.