Leslie A. Morris is the Founder and CEO of Women of the Dream (WOD), whose mission is to strengthen the leadership, power, and voices of girls from marginalized and underserved communities. She holds a B.A. from Simmons University (formerly Simmons College) and graduate degrees in clinical social work and public health in the area of maternal and child health from Boston College and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Her career spanned 35 years, primarily in community-based health care and social work, before retiring in 2015 to focus on building WOD. The passionate leader has worked with some renowned organizations like the National Association of Community Health Centers in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey Primary Care Association, to name a few.
WOD’s inception was simply a continuation of her work with children, teens, and families in underserved communities.
Wearing Multiple Hats, Performing Various Responsibilities
As Founder and CEO, Leslie has combined her educational and professional background with her personal experience as a poor black child growing up in public housing to create a model that she believes is significantly more beneficial to the target community. She is also responsible for program and strategic planning, budgetary matters, fundraising, developing partnerships, program advocacy, marketing, and communications.
Plus, Leslie plays the role of a direct service provider as well. She states, “On any given day, you might find me transporting the girls to and from activities, facilitating a Life Skills session in a partner school, meeting with school officials, negotiating contracts, writing grants, conducting meetings, or standing on a street corner talking with a group of young people.”
WOD exposes girls to many opportunities and activities beyond the classroom setting, a critical program component for youth in underserved communities.
WOD Program Services For Girls
WOD stands unique among Camden’s non-profit youth-serving organizations in a number of ways. The company collaborates with schools to work with its target audience (girls aged 12 to 18) at schools and during school hours. As an onsite program provider, its program services are part of the school culture and school curriculum.
Program participants attend WOD program services at a specified time and in a specified location, similar to how they attend English, History, and Math lessons. “Each week, for 2 hours, we meet in a group format with girls at our partner schools who are enrolled in our two core programs – the Life Skills Program and the College Prep, Career and Workforce Readiness Program,” states CEO Leslie. These core programs are supplemented by extracurricular activities that are socially and culturally relevant, such as college visits, cultural activities, teen conferences and workshops, leadership training, and other opportunities.
Another distinguishing feature of WOD is that it does not offer “one-time” program services. The girls begin participating in WOD in 7th grade and remain in the program until they graduate from high school (and beyond for those who receive WOD scholarships during their senior year). From grades 7-10, girls participate in the Life Skills Program. Under this program, girls are educated with the basic set of life skills that are helpful during the teen years and throughout their adult lives. And in grade 11, participants move from the Life Skills Program to the College Prep, Career & Workforce Readiness Program, where they will remain until graduation.
WOD also offers scholarships to girls who want to continue their studies after high school and hosts an annual STEM conference for girls to expose them to careers and prominent women of colour in STEM. “Finally, the overarching theme across all programs is breaking the cycle of poverty,” asserts Founder Leslie.
The WOD Army of Women and Volunteers
“Frankly, I am the only staff member at Women of the Dream. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true,” says CEO Leslie. But, she feels fortunate to have a wonderful and highly skilled certified public accountant, a black woman, who serves as Chief Financial Officer through a contractual arrangement. In addition, the passionate leader hires and collaborates with several amazing people and organizations to carry out program activities. She also uses volunteers to help her organize and manage activities outside of the classroom. “I am also blessed to have a highly skilled board of directors that helps with the programs and organizational activities,” says Founder Leslie.
Leslie’s View On Pandemic Outbreak
Leslie wrote an article about the pandemic’s impact on their target population and children in underserved youth around the country, which was published in a local newspaper. The article describes their strategy for keeping the girls engaged in program services and discussed the virus’s impact on underserved communities.
According to her, the coronavirus outbreak has increased inequality for the children who live in underserved and poverty-stricken communities. And the absence of digital access and health resources are only the tip of the iceberg. The epidemic is yet another source of emotional trauma for these children, resulting in anxiety, despair, and other symptomatology. Childhood trauma tends to “hang on” and follow children into adult life.
“WOD is making an effort to be proactive by positioning ourselves to meet the mental health challenges of our girls upon their return to the school setting in September. Through a grant written/received to provide individual and group counseling to our target population, WOD will address the mental health challenges stemming directly from the pandemic and any pre-existing traumas as well,” proudly asserts Leslie.
For the year 2021, Leslie has established some key goals. First, in September, put the grant-funded mental health initiative into action. Given the pandemic’s impact on the target group, this is critical. Second, work on WOD’s strategic planning retreat with board members, which is also scheduled for September. This is critical since a large portion of it will be devoted to recruiting employees for Women of the Dream.