WATERVILLE — When Megan Williams was a high school student in Falmouth, she helped start a civil rights team at her school. One of the things the group did was organize a week to celebrate difference, but Williams said the idea was met with some negative reactions.
“People tore down the posters and didn’t want to participate. It showed me that there is still a lot of injustice in the world but also taught me how important difference is,” Williams said.
Today she is the president of a nonprofit organization that serves close to 1,000 teenage and pre-teen girls a year, teaching them that they can celebrate their differences through social action.
She is also the 2013 winner of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce’s Rising Star Award, which will be presented April 11 at the Waterville Elks Banquet & Conference Center during the the organization’s 50th annual awards dinner. The award is one of eight the chamber is presenting.
Williams said she sees the award as a recognition that her organization, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, is making a difference in central Maine. The nonprofit organization organizes support groups for girls to talk about different issues in schools, hosts conferences with women leaders and role models, and helps teenage and pre-teen girls get involved with social action.
“In the long term, we are connecting girls with women in science, technology and other fields. I think that is an important component of a thriving economic community,” said Williams, a Colby College graduate who lives in Waterville.
Lyn Brown, professor of education at Colby and co-founder of the organization, said Williams is a good role model for girls as well as a good president.
“She’s brave, tenacious and principled; and she always does her homework in preparation for any project,” said Brown, who has known Williams for 10 years, since Brown was her academic adviser and professor.
Williams, 30, was born in Augusta and is the second-oldest of five children. She graduated from Colby with degrees in women’s studies and sociology in 2004.
While at Colby, Williams interned at the organization, which was started by Brown as well as current Waterville Mayor Karen Heck. As an intern, she helped run a pilot program of the Girls Group, in-school discussion groups in which girls can talk about relationships, dating, family stresses and body image. The program has grown from three middle schools and is now in 25 schools in 13 school districts. It is mostly run by students from Colby who act as mentors for the young girls.
Williams started as one of those mentors, but now her day-to-day tasks are more administrative. As president, she oversees strategic development, comes up with the goals and priorities for the organization, supervises the staff, raises money and handles public relations and donations. She said her mission is still the same, though.
“We’re not focused on fixing confidence issues or boosting self-esteem. Instead, we want to teach girls how they can make change. We want them to understand where pressures come from in society and teach them to raise awareness through social action,” Williams said. Examples include forming solidarity groups, organizing petitions and writing letters to publications, she said.
After graduation from college, Williams worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer at the organization before taking over as president in 2005. Since then, she said, she has seen the budget grow by 300 percent and outreach grow to the national level. Hardy Girls currently works with organizations in 42 states to run Girls Group programs.
In April, the organization plans to host a statewide conference at Colby College called Girls Rock Weekend, which will be organized by local high school girls who will develop workshops and run presentations for younger girls.
In June, however, Williams will be leaving the organization. Her co-workers and the leadership at Hardy Girls said she will be missed. “No matter what she decides to do, she is a young woman to watch,” Heck said. “The award she is receiving from the chamber is not her first.”
In 2009, Williams was named to Mainebiz’s Next List, honoring future leaders of the Maine business community; and in 2010 she received the the Francis Perkins Center’s first Open Door Award, an award given in memory of the first woman appointed to a U.S. cabinet. Williams also helped the organization earn the Governor’s Award for Nonprofit Excellence in 2010.
“Megan is respected by girls as well as adults. She has done a lot at an amazingly young age,” Heck said.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368