Alexis and Ayonis Killebrew haven’t had the best relationship with her father lately.
Ever since dad left about four years ago, he’s been present in the lives of his two daughters, Alexis, 13, and Ayonis, 10. But things began changing the last few months.
“He has a girlfriend and he’s been taking care of her kids more than us,” Alexis said.
Alexis’ mother, Contessa, said that she’s invited her ex to visit his kids but for the last six months he’s not been around.
That changed recently.
Killebrew was waiting outside of her father’s barber shop while her brother got a haircut, adamant about not going inside. She didn’t want anything to do with him.
After a few minutes waiting in the car, Killebrew changed her mind.
“We’re going to talk to him,” Killebrew told her mom.
“Are you serious?” Contessa asked.
“Yeah, remember?” Killebrew asked. “Dialogue.”
She was referring to a lesson she learned while taking part in ShePower Global, a six-week program intended to empower young women in the community. The goal is to transform them into future leaders.
That lesson was that young women need to take control of their lives and make responsible decisions. Leadership, they learn, sometimes requires having uncomfortable conversations.
“They encouraged us that even though your dad’s not reaching out to you, you should reach out to your dad, so my 13-year old and 10-year old daughters had enough maturity to talk to him and get their relationship back with their dad,” Contessa said.
He picked them up from school the next day and is now seeing them every weekend.
“He’s 32 years old and couldn’t do it on his own, but I truly believe they would not have done that if not for this six week program,” Contessa said. “No child deserves to be fatherless.”
The Bakersfield-based program, ShePower Global, was founded by Arleana Waller about two years ago as a way to empower girls in underserved areas. She brings in local community leaders every week to speak to the girls about topics like body image, respect in relationships, and the qualities that determine individual heroism. She creates “power circles” where girls talk about their issues in a "safe space" and are applauded afterward.
“By speaking, it gives you the power to use your voice and you become comfortable celebrating other women. Those are two things we realize are weaknesses in women: girls start losing their voice at about 10 or 11 years old, and they’re catty and don’t celebrate each other,” Waller said. “It’s a mindset we need to change.”
Those power circles have helped Ayonis find her voice, and her confidence, her mother, Contessa, said. Before ShePower, she couldn’t hold a conversation, couldn’t introduce herself and wasn’t ambitious about going to school.
“She had zero confidence, and I don’t know why,” Contessa said. “By the time the six weeks was up, she was taking selfies on Snapchat and saying she’s beautiful and a 'baller.' In my eyes, there was no excuse why my kid shouldn’t have had confidence, but it took ShePower to get her to have confidence.”
Waller marks that type of incremental growth as a huge success for the program.
Contessa credits the turnaround to the mentorship component of ShePower, which encourages older girls in the program to watch over younger ones and guide them based on their experiences.
“Sometimes it takes a certain person,” Contessa said. “Sometimes kids need to hear it from a kid.”
Other times, the kids need adults to advocate for them.
Seldom a day would go by that Waller wouldn’t personally text one, or several, of the girls who are part of ShePower. One in particular is Kauri Walton, a 15-year-old Ridgeview High student who was being bullied by a couple of girls in a spat over a boy she was dating.
The girls were cruel. They’d pick on Walton’s mother, who has Lupus, an inflammatory disease that causes the immune system to attack its own tissues. They’d make fun of Kauri because her dad wasn’t in the picture. It would happen relentlessly — on social media, at school, and at home.
“It hit below the belt, and it took me out of character,” Kauri said. “When they’d say something to me, I’d automatically clap back, I’d post on my Snapchat story and it would be screenshotted, and I fought her. I physically got into an altercation with her, and I didn’t want that to happen, but I felt like I was alone. I felt like I had no one on my side.”
It took Waller's involvement, and three months of work, before the girls picking on Walton were disciplined and the issue resolved.
But during that time Waller also mentored Kauri and her mother, Marlana Clevenger, on how to deal with the situation.
“I realized silence is power,” Kauri said. “It kills them, it kills the beef and it has made me a better person. I just ignore them now.”
Now, taking the tools she’s gotten from her time at ShePower, Kauri said she plans to become a leader on her campus and start a club — a support group for victims of bullying.
“I can be there for them and let them know my personal experiences. I just want to let them know I'll always be there to talk to, and I can bring in Ms. Waller and other people to talk to them and motivate them,” Kauri said. “A lot of people commit suicide over being bullied because they feel like they have nobody, they don’t know what to do, and they feel helpless, and that it’s the only way out. I don’t want that to happen."
Waller, a mentor to the girls in her program, often leads by example.
Like just this summer, when she saw Kern High School District Trustee Mike Williams post what she considered “culturally insensitive” remarks on his Facebook page. She went to the next public school board meeting and called for his resignation.
Then, something unexpected happened. Waller and Williams got together for coffee. They talked out their differences. They came to an understanding. Then Waller invited Williams to become an adviser to the ShePower program so that he could see firsthand the types of entrenched issues some underserved girls in the community face.
“We’ve both grown up in different cultures, and there’s a lot that goes on that she sees that I don’t. There’s just a lot of need in that area,” Williams said, adding that as the owner of American Kids Sports, he could hire the girls in the program and offer them mentorship.
“All of us want good things for people, and sometimes we disagree about methodology of doing it, but at the end of the day, we do want good things for others,” Williams said.
The experience serves as a powerful lesson for Waller’s girls: You don't run away from your problems, and common ground — even among those with stark ideological differences — can almost always be found.