Girls Inc. has become a fixture in the Fort Smith community, giving girls the opportunity to participate in activities during the year without worrying about boys being around. The program has not only been a part of the city for decades but also the life of Amanda Daniels, executive director of the local chapter.
Daniels played softball in elementary school but wanted to try basketball. Enter Girls Inc. Her softball friends on the program’s team encouraged Daniels to join. Looking back, she said the team wasn’t very good, but they made good memories. Daniels remembers vividly traveling to Belle Grove for games, watching her fellow teammates and coach.
“It was just a fun time in my life, being elementary age and playing sports,” Daniels said. “It was always a positive environment.”
That’s what she wants the girls she guides now to feel. She wants them to know how to work with others in every situation and do so in a way that is uplifting. To put it simply, Daniels wants Girls Inc. to impact the kids she works with today just like it did for her.
‘Try new things’
Daniels eventually grew up and left the program. She also left Fort Smith for a brief time after college, but as life would have it, the mother of two ended up back home and working for the organization that taught her so many lessons as a child.
Following her return to Fort Smith, Daniels worked in marketing at Arvest Bank for 10 years, while serving on the Girls Inc. Board of Directors after getting reacquainted with the organization. It was a way to give back.
Daniels’ job started to wear on her and she felt burnt out. It wasn’t that she disliked the company or her co-workers. The passion just wasn’t there anymore.
It felt like she wasn’t making a bigger impact through her job, and that’s what Daniels craved: Impact.
It almost seemed like destiny when Daniels volunteered to help the Girls Inc. board president work on its upcoming budget, following the departure of its director. Daniels laughs at the memory of sitting at her kitchen table working on the budget, talking about the need for a new director when she said, “I think I might want to do it.”
There are a lot of adjectives to describe the decision Daniels made one day following her sudden proclamation. The one she chose was crazy. She was caring for her two children, Jude, now 11, and 7-year-old Ella was just a newborn. Surely she couldn’t take over a nonprofit organization, when she had a comfortable job at the bank.
That’s when lessons from her time at Girls Inc. came flooding back.
"I think it teaches you to try new things and not be scared if it doesn't work out,” Daniels said. “Something else will come along that will work out for you."
She took the leap and became the Girls Inc. Fort Smith chapter director. To say it’s worked out wouldn’t give Daniels enough credit. Around 620 girls were participating in Girls Inc. programs when Daniels took the job in 2012. Today, there are roughly 1,400 who are being served, and Fort Smith received the award for “Outstanding Affiliate of the Year” last week by the national organization.
But, she would admit, a lot of Daniels’ success with Girls Inc. comes from what she learned through the program. Daniels said she believes what kids experience help shape them and their futures. It was certainly true for her. She was taught to be strong. She was taught to work hard. She was taught she could make a difference. She was taught to be kind.
Anyone could look at the numbers and the shiny new award to see Daniels’ achievements, and she’s proud of them, but her real accomplishments are the changed lives of girls who have come through the program.
It’s easy to tell her desire to help people is being fulfilled when Girls Inc. students say they love coming to the after school program because they make friends, feel welcomed, and learn to lead, stay strong and be nice to everyone.
“I laugh more,” N’kiyah Charles said with a giggle about why she likes Girls Inc. “At school, they're just boring. They talk about weird stuff like boys.”
While cultivating happiness and confidence makes a world of difference in a girl’s life, Daniels goes beyond for the those she serves. Kiaja Davis has participated in Girls Inc. since she was 5 years old. She’s now in 11th grade and an after-school staff member who credits Daniels with a lot her personal growth through the Young Leadership Program. Daniels made the impact she set out for six years ago.
“She cares for people, and if she knows you’re good in academics or something and you’re leader to these little girls, she will help you with colleges and convince you to (apply) for scholarships,” Davis said. “She wants to see a better life after Girls Inc. or after high school.”