by Sidney Sullivan
After school one recent afternoon, a young girl made her usual visit to You Grow Girl!, a non-profit organization that encourages her to express herself and talk through her problems.
As she talked to her mentor, she revealed her desire to play the flute, however, there was one problem: her parents lacked the funds to afford the instrument. Did this mean her dream was cut short? Not if Lynn Coleman could help it.
Coincidentally, Coleman had an extra flute in the trunk of her car, as it was originally purchased for her daughter, who instead took interest in the French horn. So when the mentor passed the message along to Coleman, the instrument was soon given to the young teen.
Coleman is the founder, interim executive director and director of programs of You Grow Girl!, a non-profit organization that works to create a safe space for girls to seek support, feel empowered and express themselves.
Coleman said that she founded You Grow Girl! in 2002, because she wanted to be a role model for her daughter and share her story of going through foster care, while struggling through the usual challenges of adolescence. She spreads the message to youth that changing a situation and finding success is achievable.
“We need to support each other, regardless if we feel alone,” said Coleman. “We all walk the same kind of path, but what direction do we go? Let’s share our stories together.”
Coleman spent her early childhood in California with her birth parents and older siblings. But after the family was separated and a member went through legal trouble, at 7 years old, she met Seattle foster mother Grace Robinson.
“When I got her, all she had was a Safeway bag, with two pairs of pants in it and a shirt,” said Robinson.
“I remember that she came to my class closer to the middle of the school year,” said Cynthia Vice, Coleman’s third-grade teacher from John Muir Elementary School. “It’s hard when you don’t come in at the very start of the school year, but she was always very willing to work hard.”
Vice said that she is amazed and proud of what Coleman has accomplished.
“When she first came to me, she had such a hard life in the beginning,” said Vice. “But she has so much drive. I am really inspired by her.”
Coleman had to forgive the adults in her life who were responsible for causing her neglect and abuse as a young child, said Robinson.
“She’s had a lot of struggles, and she’s come a long way,” said Robinson. “She’s had a lot of forgiveness in her life.”
“Going back to my past, I have a very great memory,” said Coleman. “But if you hold hatred and negativity in, it will really impact your soul. So I try to let things go and forgive more.”
Regardless of Coleman’s challenges and hardships, friends and family described her as always being driven, smart, passionate and caring.
“Even when she was little, she always said, ‘Momma, I’m going to have a home for teens and kids to come to when they don’t have anybody,’” said Robinson. “That was always her dream. She stayed focused, and she always kept in mind what her goal was in life. She followed it out.”
You Grow Girl! works to provide Annara Counseling Services, career mentoring services, summer programs and pro-social activities for vulnerable girls and women around King County. While many recipients are familiar with the foster care system, Coleman said that You Grow Girl! is open to serving all types of populations at both their North and South Seattle locations.
Prior to You Grow Girl!, Coleman had years of experience as a social worker in case management, group facilitation and advocacy based counseling throughout King County. But she said she did not like working around the red tape and corporate bureaucracy.
“I wasn’t happy,” said Coleman. “I don’t want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of this, which is You Grow Girl!”
Coleman said that the creation of You Grow Girl! was a lot of work, because she completed much of the back-end work by herself. And she used her previous job experiences in social work to help formulate a template. She created her checklist and spent many nights writing policies, procedures and 5013C forms.
By pouring her blood and sweat into this start-up, Coleman said she could ensure her policies backed her vision. Hitting milestones was exciting for Coleman, because it ensured she was on the right track.
Every year, Coleman aimed to hit a new pillar of services. Different pillars involved creating a center for girls to attend after school, introducing a licensed counseling agency into the program, creating a career mentoring program, which became an extension of counseling, and providing resources to older demographics, between 18 to 24 years, in order to keep them off the streets.
Coleman said that she works from morning to night, because it is important to have an open-door policy. She can be found in the office starting anywhere between 5:30-7:30 a.m., even though the organization does not technically open until 10 a.m., said Coleman. And once she picks her daughter up from school, she will continue working from her home-office, too.
“I am always working. My brain is always on,” said Coleman.
She also stressed the importance of making sure You Grow Girl! is a one-stop shop for King County’s youth.
“We don’t want the youth to have to go to four different providers to get the support they need,” said Coleman.
But in instances where the participants are using multiple providers, Coleman said that You Grow Girl! holds monthly case councils with other King County providers, checks-in with community partners, such as Powerful Voices, and works closely with schools, in order to avoid duplicating services and remain supportive.
Aside from bookkeeping, replying to emails, updating policies and managing her staff and volunteers, Coleman said it is important to her that she also makes room in her schedule to provide in-person facilitation of youth groups in schools.
Coleman works hard to fulfill the role of executive director, but she said that being a direct service provider is where her heart is.
“I read progress notes of all participants daily,” said Coleman. “I want to know what’s going on. Are we really providing that quality care? And if not, why? And what can we do?”
Coleman said she continues to stay motivated, because since the start of You Grow Girl!, the non-profit organization has grown from serving 50 individuals annually to over 200 individuals annually. Coleman said that the youngest participant is seven years old, while the oldest is 63.
“They trust us to provide them the support they need, so they can go and get over their challenges and their barriers,” said Coleman. “So they can be successful.”
Coleman emphasized her desire to be a great role model for her daughter and You Grow Girl! recipients, as Robinson, who has 35 plus years of experience being a foster-parent and a domestic violence counselor, was extremely supportive of her.
Coleman said that Robinson’s influence heavily encouraged her to get involved with social work, volunteer and inspire others.
“I just thank God that he put her in my life, and that I was able to be her mom,” said Robinson. “I think we helped each other grow. She’s a wonderful daughter, and I wouldn’t trade her in for the world.”
Coleman said that her life experiences and her work with girls and women has taught her that there are three keys to happiness and success.
“Empower, inspire and uplift,” said Coleman. “Make sure you are empowering, you are inspiring, and you are uplifting your peers.”
To hear more from Lynn Coleman click here.
Featured image courtesy of You Grow Girl!