Ashley Jeffrey had all the opportunity in the world.
She had a mother who told her she could be anything she wanted if she was willing to put in the hard work. She had a father who encouraged her to play a sport where people cheered her on, instead of the other way around. She excelled at science and math and had a positive body image.
She had a lot of the things that many girls today don’t. It’s a lifestyle that ultimately brought her to Girls Inc., an organization that brings those very opportunities to girls who need them most.
“I could be whatever I wanted,” said Jeffrey, 30, “and I don’t know that many girls here in Schenectady or Albany have that person at home, you know, really being their cheerleader.”
Jeffrey was named executive director of Girls Incorporated of the Greater Capital Region last month, and she is now in charge of overseeing administrative and program staff, volunteers and more than 200 girls a day.
On Thursday morning, the Delmar woman was running late. She had just finished coffee with a board member when she got called to the nonprofit’s Albany center for what she called “logistical” purposes.
Really, it was the bathrooms. They were left messy, with paper towels and other trash on the floor, and she needed to talk with the cleaning staff to pass a message on to the girls who use the bathroom: “Clean up after yourselves and respect this space”.
In her first month on the job, much of Jeffrey’s days consisted of logistics like this, along with networking, social events and reaching out to sponsors and agencies with similar missions. She doesn’t get much one-on-one time with the girls who use the programs, but the time she has had with them so far has been invaluable.
On a recent field trip to miSci, the former Schenectady Museum, Jeffrey joined a group of girls as they toured the new “Seeing” exhibit — a series of interactive stations that play tricks on the mind and eyes.
“You could see the passion in their eyes,” she said. “They want to learn so much, and really enjoy themselves when they do. You just leave with a smile on your face.”
Girls Inc. is headquartered in Schenectady at 925 Albany St. The organization first began as the Schenectady Girls Club in 1937, a time when the world’s idea of preparing a girl for her future meant preparing her to be a wife and mother.
Today, Girls Inc. runs year-round programming that educates girls in kindergarten through grade 12 on everything from self-respect and economic literacy to preventing adolescent pregnancy and learning science, technology, engineering and math skills. Girls can learn about recycling, starting a business, financial aid and scholarships for college, stereotypes in the media, and basic skills like running, kicking and throwing.
Mary Bayly-Skevington views the nonprofit’s new executive director as the ideal role model for young girls.
“She’s a high-energy, accomplished young woman,” she said, “and our girls have a lot to learn from her.”
Bayly-Skevington serves as the chairwoman of Girls Inc.’s board of directors and was on the search committee to select a new executive director. More than 70 applications poured in.
The person they wanted to lead the organization had to be someone whose values were closely aligned with the mission of helping girls be responsible, confident and eventually self-sufficient adults. It had to be someone who could grow membership and expand programming. Perhaps most important, the new leader would need to quickly earn the respect of community members because Girls Inc. relies heavily on partnerships and collaboration with similar-minded organizations.
“[Jeffrey] is obviously well-respected and well-loved by everybody,” she said. “It’s challenging to keep the girls involved through high school, and we need resources and financing to provide that programming. So being an active part of the community really helps.”
Bayly-Skevington caught a glimpse of Jeffrey’s community relationships at an event they attended a month ago. The American Cancer Society was announcing it needed volunteers for a 20-year cancer prevention study, a project Jeffrey had helped directly.
During Jeffrey’s senior year at Siena College, her doctor asked her to come in for a biopsy. Her last Pap smear showed abnormal cells. She wasn’t worried. Why should she be?
“Cancer only happens to old ladies like me,” her mother joked, even though Jeffrey remembers her as adamant about applying sunscreen before the rest of the world seemed to catch on.
But at 21, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She stood muttering inside her doctor’s office, saying, “OK, OK, well, I have a take-home test I have to bring to my 4 o’clock class right now, so I’ll have to call you back later,” she recalled.
She dropped off her test, stopped in the library to see her boyfriend and broke down in tears.
“It went from zero to 60 just in one year,” she said.
Jeffrey had surgery the next month and was declared cancer-free. Less than a year later, she would begin work at the American Cancer Society, helping uninsured men and women to be screened for cancer.
In 81⁄2 years there, she handled prevention and early detection outreach in the 13 counties making up the Greater Capital Region. As she began to wonder what her next challenge would be, she heard about the job opening at Girls Inc. and thought, “This is what I was looking for.”
She had advocacy and lobbying experience from her time at the American Cancer Society, and she soon found that those skills would translate well to heading a nonprofit organization for young girls.
“Health is just a small component of Girls Inc.,” said Jeffrey. “I was very diversified at the cancer society, but Girls Inc. is such a holistic, comprehensive set of services so that we’re not only doing health education and teaching girls healthy habits and to take care of themselves, but also to respect themselves and have a positive self-image.”
Going forward, Jeffrey hopes to enhance the organization’s science, technology, engineering and math offerings, get their programs back into the schools and collaborate with other similar-minded agencies to eliminate duplication of services and offer ones that don’t exist already in the community.
The organization focuses on minority youth who come from poor or single-family homes, a demographic well represented in both Albany and Schenectady. These are the girls who need empowerment the most.
“Empowering women and advocating for them has always been a passion of mine,” she said. “It’s what my mom always instilled in me.”