Catalyst Grantee Profile: GirlForward


Interview with GirlForward founder, Blair Brettschneider on GirlForward, why she started the organization and what she’s thinking about.


Organization Vision: We envision a world free from barriers for girls.

Organization Mission: GirlForward is a community of support dedicated to creating and enhancing opportunity for girls who have been displaced by conflict and persecution.

Population Served: Girls ages 14-20 who have been displaced from their homes and resettled in the U.S.

Founding Year: 2011

Problem and Approach: We are in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen. Over 60 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes. In conflict, girls are especially vulnerable to violence, isolation, and being kept out of school. Girls who receive resettlement in the United States face huge challenges: poverty, language barrier, limited or disrupted education, isolation, and trauma. But when girls succeed, everyone benefits. GirlForward’s core programs are built according to girl-centered design. Each program includes three key things girls need to succeed: friends, mentors, and a safe space.

Program Overview:

  • Our Mentoring Program pairs girls with mentors to engage in “4W” activities (Wellness, Wisdom, Wallet and World) in order to explore their passions and graduate from high school.
  • Camp GirlForward provides a space for girls to simultaneously build their English skills while exploring their identities and learning about the world around them.
  • The Safe Spaces Project provides safe spaces for girls to explore their identities, connect with other girls, and access the resources they need.


Why did you start this program? I recognized a gap in support for adolescent girls who had come to the U.S. through refugee resettlement and founded GirlForward to fill that gap.

What kind of trends do you see in your area of work? We don’t follow trends; we focus on what the needs of our girls are. Right now, everyone is talking about STEM. STEM is important. But so is learning the alphabet. It’s extremely difficult to learn English and succeed in high school simultaneously. We’re focusing on building tools and resources for English language learners and their teachers, because ELL students are a growing population and the resources have not caught up.

What do you think will change most about over the next 5 years? We work with a population that is constantly changing, in circumstances that are changing as well. The political climate in the past year or two has caused people to educate themselves on the refugee crisis, but there is also a lot more work to be done.

What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in the population you serve? Why? English language learning, positive identity, goal-setting. English language is critical for academic and future success; we want our girls to feel positive about who they are and where they come from; goal-setting is important for high school and future success

What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in your staff? Why? 

  • Good communication – especially with a small team spread over two states, it’s important!
  • Innovation – because we are a start-up, if we see a problem we can work on tackling it without dealing with the huge bureaucracy others sometimes have to deal with
  • Balance – we are all extremely passionate about this work, so it’s easy to overwork ourselves! We emphasize the importance of balance. Exhausted employees are not helpful to themselves or others.

How has technology influenced the way your organization works? In so many ways. We use an app called Slack to communicate that has been completely transformative. On the other end of the spectrum, so many more of our girls have phones now than they did in 2011.

Who are your key mentors? I worked at Heshima Kenya prior to starting GirlForward, and the founder Anne Sweeney was a great mentor to me. I also previously interned at 826michigan and had the chance to learn a bit from the executive director, Amanda Uhle. Both of these women accomplished so much in their roles and made me feel like I could achieve my goals.

If we talk one year from now, reflecting on what a great year it’s been, what did you/the organization achieve? We have filled out our staff in both cities and have all our systems working well and efficiently. We are preparing for our launch in city #3 in 2019!

What’s next for you in your work? What are you looking forward to? We are continuing to work on resources for ELL students and teachers that will allow us to potentially serve thousands of students around the country; our goal is to launch in another city by 2019.

What do you wish others knew about the organization? The voices of our girls are critical to every aspect of our work. Their input informs everything from programming to marketing and fundraising.

Named Best Charity by Chicago Reader

Reader’s Digest 2015 Extraordinary America