Call to Cause: Miami's Women of Tomorrow
By Beth Landman
Women of Tomorrow mentor Nancy Olson, gala and philanthropic chair Marisa Toccin, and founder Jennifer Valoppi
When Basheba “Abby” Brown was 12 years old, her mother’s boyfriend murdered her grandmother. Her father died of AIDS months later, and with a mother who had a history of drug problems, she and her seven siblings were separated; Brown was placed with a foster mother who also cared for her own daughter and six grandchildren. Today, she’s a licensed practical nurse working in hospice care. “I don’t have a phone number for my mother,” says the 21-year-old. “Maybe I’ll hear from her soon, because I haven’t in months. That’s just the kind of relationship we have.”
Although foster care allowed her to survive, it was not ideal. “I couldn’t open up to her at all,” Brown recalls of her foster mother. “She lost her apartment and had a lot of frustrations that she kind of took out on me. We moved to four, five places in one year. I was sleeping on the couch and felt like the black sheep of the family. I was sad, lonely, and I had nobody who could understand me.”
|Mentee Abby Brown|
After being removed from her guardian’s home at 17, Brown had nowhere to turn. Amazingly, she found a nurturing support system and a powerful emotional bond via Women of Tomorrow. It was a connection that changed the trajectory of her life. Women of Tomorrow mentors young women in nearly 100 South Florida public high schools, helping with résumés, job searches, career guidance, even makeup application, with the goal of improving the women’s self-esteem and future prospects.
In 2004, when Brown was a freshman in high school, a teacher referred her to Women of Tomorrow, through which she was granted two scholarships—$5,000 from the Florida Marlins, in 2008, and, more recently, $2,500 from the organization itself. The Marlins check was presented by Kelly Schnackenberg and Nancy Olson, who worked as executive director of the Marlins’ community foundation. And While Brown was not officially Olson’s mentee, the two went on to develop profound ties.
“When she got up to receive the scholarship, she was so emotional,” recalls Olson. “I remember driving back and saying [to myself], ‘She overwhelmed me.’ Then she sent me a really nice note.” Brown made such an impression, Olson immediately asked her to help out at the Marlins’ Community Corner information stand with the promise of being hired at $35 per game when she turned 18. She fit in so well that Olson recommended her for work at the reception desk the next season. “She was going to school at the same time, but it was so cool to come in and see her working the desk,” says Olson.
Though she had failing grades before becoming a mentee, Brown was determined to attend college, waking at 5:30 each day to take a train and two buses to Stranahan High School, where she went from a dropout-prevention program to taking honors courses. Currently awaiting acceptance to the Broward College nursing program, she is the first in her family of eight children to seek higher education.
Thanks to the scholarship money, Brown was able to get an apartment, but she still didn’t have the funds to fill it with furnishings. Olson contacted her friends and asked for their help. “I created a wish list with Abby—towels, silverware; I don’t think she even had a pair of pajamas,” she says. “I was able to get almost everything on the list. She wound up with two sets of dishes!”
For Brown, Women of Tomorrow—particularly Olson’s attention and belief in her—turned her life around. “I was a failing student, but they wrote letters for me and helped me get scholarships,” she says. “The mentors and coordinators were such a support system. Even now, I can call anyone at Women of Tomorrow. Nancy has made a tremendous difference in my life. What she did was such a blessing.”
Not only is there a ripple effect (Brown recently spoke in front of a group of younger women, giving words of encouragement and inspiration), but there’s reciprocity. Olson, who at 65 is now an adjunct professor at NOVA Southeastern University, and divorced without children, recently met up with a group of her high school friends. “We have a lot in common because we are all involved with charities,” she says. “But when they began to talk about their children, I felt sort of left out. Then I talked about my students and mentees and realized I had my own stories to share. I guess I’m one of those people who was a career woman; but as an intern at the Marlins said to me, ‘No, you have lots of children; you just never had the labor pains.’”
photograph by presscott mcdonald (olson)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.