Instructor’s nonprofit helps young people flourish
“I’ve devoted my life to telling young people they can lead productive, well-educated lives,” says Gladys Pearson, an online instructor in the general studies program for University of Phoenix, and founder and CEO of Making It To The Finish Line, a nonprofit mentoring program for youths ages 7 to 17.
“Our main message is aimed at young, single parents,” she explains. “We promote personal pride and not getting stuck in shame and secret-keeping.”
Pearson battled those stumbling blocks herself as a young woman. Pregnant at 13, she went to live with out-of-state relatives until her baby girl was born. Her parents, who’d raised a religious and close-knit family, kept the birth a secret and arranged for the infant’s adoption to another family.
Teenage Pearson returned to her family, later marrying and giving birth to a son and another daughter, and went on to earn two master’s degrees — one in organizational management, the other in special education from the University. In 1992, the daughter who was given up for adoption sought out her biological family and eventually found Pearson.
“My siblings and my children had no idea that I had been a teen mom,” Pearson says. “I had some explaining to do.”
We promote personal pride and not getting stuck in shame and secret-keeping.
Although reuniting with her daughter was fulfilling — Pearson says, “She’s just part of the family now, like she’s always been with us" — it also reminded her of the shame she’d felt for more than 30 years.
“I saw how it had affected my self-esteem and slowed me down in life,” she says. “I felt I had done something bad and that kept me from believing I could achieve anything good. I resolved to keep that from happening to other young women.”
She founded Making It To The Finish Line in 2001 primarily to prepare teenage mothers for the professional world, though young men also are welcome in the program. “We teach computer skills, public speaking and interviewing techniques,” Pearson explains. “We encourage these young mothers to pursue higher education … before their families shift their focus from college.”
The all-volunteer organization uses an unusual — and some would say old-fashioned — approach.
“We have something called the Young and Elegant/Young and Debonair Boot Camp,” Pearson says of the four-month program that offers workshops in etiquette, character building and self-esteem. “Teenagers need social skills, which they’re not taught in school. Academics are important, but without good communication skills and strong self-esteem, you’re only halfway trained in life.”
The nonprofit also emphasizes writing well.
“No one was ever held back by a talent for expressing themselves on paper,” Pearson says. For example, she notes, “we have local boutiques donate new cotillion dresses that we give to our young women in exchange for an essay about their career goals. It gives them writing experience that they’ll need for college applications and after they get to college.”
Pearson says the nonprofit’s goal is for the young people who have participated in the program to “[take] our message of self-esteem and pride out into the world. And that’s what will make the difference for the next generation.”