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From AmeriCorps VISTA to CNN Hero

December 2, 2013

Today’s post originally appeared on the Corporation for National and Community Service National Service Blog on November 27, 2013, and was written by Dana Forde.

By: Dana Forde
Blair Brettschneider didn’t plan on creating her own nonprofit. But something she imagined had never been done before. So Blair decided to make a change.

“There was nothing in Chicago really dedicated to improving education for teenage refugee girls and expanding opportunities for them,” said Blair, an AmeriCorps VISTA alum.

2013.12.02. Blair Brettscheider

That’s when the 24-year-old launched what is now GirlForward, an organization that offers mentorship and educational opportunities for girls who have been uprooted from their war-torn countries. Blair credits her experience with the AmeriCorps VISTA program for exposing her to the plight of refugee youth and their families. She is an example of how national service programs are molding a new generation of entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders.

Blair served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member from 2010 to 2011. As part of her responsibilities, she completed fundraising development projects at RefugeeOne, a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. She then joined a former VISTA member in creating an after-school mentoring and tutoring group for teenage girls. Blair quickly started pairing students with hand-picked mentors. Later, she began processing mentorship referrals for other agencies.

But expanding on this progress meant Blair would need to commit to a full-time plan and make GirlForward an official organization.

“I wanted a summer program. I wanted a place where the girls could go after school,” Blair said. “If I had held back and waited for funding, nothing would have happened. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”

Her optimism paid off. What started as a modest enterprise has now grown to one that helps more than four dozen girls. In fact, GirlForward’s success prompted media giant CNN to name her one of its top 24 CNN Heroes for 2013. Airing on December 1, CNN Heroes is a yearly television broadcast that celebrates remarkable and inspiring contributions to humanitarian causes and community endeavors.

Still, Blair’s newfound celebrity has not fully resonated yet.

“When I see people sitting in the office I think, ‘Wow this is an actual organization,’” Blair said. “I’m really proud of everything that we’ve done and I’m also really thankful for all of the support we’ve received.”

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