For Rosie Molinary, growing up Puerto Rican in Columbia, South Carolina was challenging. She says that during this time, there weren’t many Latinos around. After she went away to college, she realized she wanted to give back to her community.
“I got my undergraduate degree and became a high school teacher, so I was really interested in teaching in the inner city and working with low-income and immigrant families,” Molinary says. “I realized that the particular thing I was passionate about in my classroom was helping young people find their voice.”
Molinary then went on to get her Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing with that intention in mind. During that time she wrote a collection of essays and poems that were about ethnic identity, body image, beauty perception, and her coming of age experience.
On her book tour for Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latinas, Molinary visited many high schools where she had the opportunity to talk to many young Latinas. “Those girls talked about their dreams,” she says. “They wanted to become veterinarians and doctors and dance teachers and all these really awesome things.”
But Molinary says that the statistics about college completion rates and teen pregnancies really started to haunt her. “I felt a real responsibility about the disparity between dreams and numbers,” she says.
“It [Circle de Luz] was born from a group of us just being uncomfortable with that disparity.”
Molinary says that what distinguishes them from a typical nonprofit is that they provide the girls with a minimum of a $5,000 scholarship to help them with their education. The funds are raised by a group of women who are willing to contribute $100 a year for each year the girls are in the program. Those same women become the support network for a specific group of girls. Molinary says the women don’t have to be local and can be from any background. They can also choose what rate of involvement they want with the girls.
The organization has now been helping young Latinas get to college since 2008. They begin working with girls when they’re in seventh grade and follow them up to high school graduation. “What we want to be is a catalyst for young Latina girls to realize that their futures can be of their choosing,” Molinary says. “And so what we provide is really intensive mentoring, holistic programming, and scholarship funds when the girls graduate after they’ve been in our program for six years.”
She says there are twelve different areas they try to cover in their programming including health, nutrition, a ropes course, college tours, career panels, and summer reading and book discussions. They also take the girls to different kinds of restaurants, so they can learn how to navigate a menu. “One of our guiding beliefs is that exposure matters, so we try to give our girls as much exposure to what’s possible,” she says.
One success story that stands out for Molinary is of a girl who was struggling with middle school. “We weren’t positive that she’d pass 8th grade,” she says. “She is now an incredibly strong academic student as a junior. She’s on the honor roll and has really big plans for herself and that’s one story that just makes me so proud.”
“My favorite thing is the family atmosphere,” Gaby says. “It’s very warm and welcoming.”
Gaby now plans to go to college to study music and business. “I want to be able to do something for the community,” she says. “Through Circle [de Luz] you realize how many opportunities there are. It’s been a life-changing experience.”