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Building Strong Women, Strong Girls

Photo courtesy Strong Women, Strong Girls
Photo courtesy Strong Women, Strong Girls

Strong Women, Strong Girls (SWSG) kicked off the celebration of its 20th anniversary as a nonprofit on September 1. The yearlong commemoration includes the annual STRONG fundraiser and awards ceremony. However, this year’s event promises to be even bigger and more festive than usual.

North Hills Monthly Magazine sat down with SWSG Managing Director, Marissa Escajeda, to discuss the mission and achievements of the organization in recognition of their milestone.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): Can you provide our readers with a bit of history about Strong Women, Strong Girls?

Marissa Escajeda (Escajeda): Strong Women, Strong Girls started as a college chapter at Harvard in 2004. It quickly gained popularity throughout Boston before moving to Pittsburgh. In 2004, SWSG became a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization. It started from the heart and spirit of college women who were trying to make a difference in their neighborhoods. They saw a need for younger girls to have mentors, and they filled that need.

We now have chapters at six universities in Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon, Point Park, the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, Robert Morris and Carlow.

Photo courtesy Strong Women, Strong Girls
Photo courtesy Strong Women, Strong Girls

This year, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary as a nonprofit. We’re kicking it off in September and going all year with different campaigns, new merchandise—including selling a cookbook with recipes from the girls and their mentors—and carrying it over until September of 2024. Pittsburgh is ending our yearlong celebration with the Strong Awards Celebration.

NHM: What makes SWSG unique?

Escajeda: Our program is unique because of its multi-generational model. Mentorship usually works in other organizations with a 1:1 model. You have one mentor and one mentee. Our model is to have professional women mentor college women, who then go out and mentor young girls in grades 3 through 5 in Pittsburgh area schools.

It’s a trickle-down effect where the college women bring what they’ve learned to help a younger generation in their communities.

NHM: Who do you serve?

Escajeda: SWSG serves girls in grades 3-5 from under-resourced communities in the Pittsburgh area. We have anywhere from 500-600 girls participate each semester from over 40 schools and community centers around Pittsburgh. Our elementary school mentees are mentored by college women who they themselves are mentored by professional women. Both our college women and professional women volunteers receive professional development, networking and leadership opportunities.

NHM: What kind of programs do you offer in Greater Pittsburgh?

Escajeda: Our organization created a curriculum that our mentors follow. We train our college women on the curriculum, and then they go out and implement it with the girls enrolled in our program. The curriculum focuses on the strength of role models. Our mentees learn what a role model is, do a fun activity about role models and learn about advocacy and how to give back by helping their own neighborhoods. It’s empowering to see themselves in whatever future they want to achieve.

We also have networking and group mentoring programs for the college women with professional women volunteers in the community.

In Pittsburgh, we have a unique opportunity called Role Models in Residence. The program is designed to grow intergenerational female mentorship by providing opportunities for professional women to interact directly with elementary school girls with a focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). Our professional women apply for the program. They receive training and help to write a lesson plan. They include a biography that outlines their background and job responsibilities, then they do an activity with the young girls around the lesson plan.

NHM: Where are your program sites?

Escajeda: Strong Women, Strong Girls has 45 sites across Pittsburgh. Our locations slightly change each semester depending on the staff capacity at our assigned sites and other factors.

NHM: Who serves on the board and how are they selected?

Escajeda: SWSG has four women serving in board leadership roles: Lindsay Andrews, Treasurer, Executive Finance Committee; Aleya Crable Jennings, Board Chair, Executive and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee; Meredith Klein, Vice Chair, Communications Committee Co-Chair; and Tamaira Ridgley, clerk. Another 11 people serve on the board of directors.

We have a nice mix on our board. Generally, board members volunteer with us first. They’ve mentored in one way or another. Then, they transition to a committee before eventually applying for a board position when one becomes available.

Board members must demonstrate a connection with the community and understand the needs of the girls and women the program serves.

NHM: Who are your key partners?

Escajeda: Our biggest partners are our universities and site partners within the schools. About 16% of our annual funding comes from corporate partnerships.

NHM: Are you accepting volunteers for the program?

Escajeda: Yes. College women at the member universities can find their local chapters and volunteer directly through them. Applicants for new professional women volunteers can go to our website and follow the prompts for completing their volunteer applications.

Professional women who want to volunteer with the younger girls must obtain their security clearances first. Then, they receive training from SWSG.

Some professional women can’t commit to a full year to mentor a college student. They can designate their availability on their application, and we’ll call them as needed.

NHM: What are your future plans?

Escajeda: We’re currently working on a plan to expand to different cities over the next two to three years. Locally in Pittsburgh, we’re focused on Butler, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

For more information about SWSG, visit

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