"I am strong, I am beautiful, I am intelligent, I am thankful, I am the future."
Those powerful words are the oath members of The Butterfly Effect Project recite at their meetings. It was created by Tijuana Fulford, BEP’s founder, and comes from a dark place, before there was light. "I took all the things in my life I struggled with as a child and an adult, that I had to overcome to become a better version of myself, and created this oath," Fulford explained.
It’s a weapon of sorts for the girls, ages 5 to 18, Butterflies in the nonprofit that seeks to empower girls, help them become confident, capable, independent young people. Fulford started the organization in 2014 with eight girls from Riverhead and Flanders. Today, the Riverside-based organization has more than 400 members, 75% of whom are Black and brown and live in Suffolk County; there are chapters in Riverhead, Bellport, Northville, Flanders and Aquebogue.
Butterflies, Fulford explained are "imperfectly perfect; each one has their own design and more beautiful for it. … Girls are like that. We start out these scary little worms and then we go into our cocoon and emerge into something beautiful. Each one different from the other, creating change with every flap."
The need for a support system for girls is great. They are battling depression, bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, peer and academic pressure, and more.
"Young people and their families need partners to support the challenges of raising children, especially in these times when depression and anxiety are on the rise for our young people," said Amanda Fludd, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Valley Stream. "Programs like the Butterfly Effect facilitate those sorts of collaborations. Young girls often feel a disconnect from their parents, ‘who just don’t get it’ and that feeling intensifies as they go through adolescence. Organizations like the Butterfly Effect help close emotional and practical gaps."
Yvette Davis, a licensed clinical social worker in Freeport agreed: "Organizations like BEP lay the foundation for future growth, development and strength for young girls who will become tomorrow’s leaders."
The organization’s importance is recognized by the likes of American Portfolios Financial Services of Holbrook, a supporter of the organization since 2017 and its largest contributor. Last December, its foundation announced a $100,000 grant for BEP to be given over four years, starting in 2021.
"BEP focuses on an underserved, overlooked population that often cannot avail itself of the more traditional types of after-school programs," said Melissa Dolber-Grappone, vice president of marketing and corporate communications for American Portfolios Financial Services. "In the years I’ve been involved with the program and its activities, I’ve witnessed a stability and safe space the program affords these girls for self-expression and daring to dream beyond what they thought not possible for them. BEP is a hidden gem of hope and outreach. Our CEO, Lon Dolber, and his wife, Debra, brought BEP to our attention and they have given their personal support."
Meetings with a mission
BEP strives to ensure that its girls have a fair chance to broaden their horizons by eliminating obstacles such as mobility, cultural differences and finances. Chapters meet every other week. During the pandemic, they’ve met mostly over Zoom, except for the chapter at Peconic Community School, where social distancing is possible.
Sessions are typically about two hours and often include guest speakers. During American Heart Month, for example, a cardiologist or heart attack survivor might speak. Other examples include a McDonald’s manager who was over 50 and had worked for the fast-food chain since she was 15 and now earns $80,000; a sex worker who shared her story ("The point was that she had hopes and dreams but made wrong choices," said Fulford); a district attorney who made candy and enjoyed a tea party with the girls; and a veterinarian who brought animals.
"The girls love the guest speakers. They learn about careers and connect with people in the community; it’s mentorship building," Fulford said.
The girls had a "pink and purple peaceful presentation with police" in which local officials and the Riverhead Police Department met with them to talk about racial inequity and state violence against people of color. Afterward, BEP member Azharia Allen joined Riverhead High School’s Cross-Cultural Task Force and now sits on the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office Student Advisory Board. A BEP junior volunteer, Allen, 16, runs the Butterfly Action Group, which aims to "change the community one conversation at a time." The Riverhead teen said her goal is to be "the older sister to all the participants," and speaks on behalf of the girls and joins community committees to represent BEP.
An important part of the BEP meetings is the Butterfly Buzz, when members can talk freely about what’s going on with them. "We share victories and failures. If one wins, we all win. If one falls, we all fall," said Fulford. She stressed, "It’s not where you have been but where you are going."
"We don’t judge, but we do hold the girls accountable," said Fulford. She listens, but when a girl is clearly wrong, like being disrespectful to her parents, Fulford isn’t shy about urging her to acknowledge it and discuss how to move forward.
Each chapter meeting follows a curriculum with lessons on a variety of topics, from public speaking to mindfulness and critical thinking. For example, the community garden curriculum focuses on sustainability, planting, growing, harvesting and nutrition. For the older Butterflies and their families there is a financial curriculum.
The fun includes arts and crafts, step and dance teams (the Elite and Empowerment squads are now rehearsing for a May performance) and gatherings like the recent Pajama Movie Night at the Westhampton Theater sponsored by the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. (The girls watched "The Watsons Go to Birmingham," a TV movie about a family’s experiences traveling to the South during the Civil Rights Era.)
Impacting girls, community
BEP is involved in projects like last year’s Intergenerational Garden in Riverhead. They teamed up with the garden’s designers, Dan and Liz Keller, Island Harvest and Family Community Life Center. Last summer 17 Butterfly families grew produce and used the garden as a safe space to gather and give back. Not only did the garden yield 66 pounds of food that was donated in the community, it taught the girls healthy, sustainable habits, Fulford said.
BEP got a grant from the nonprofit All For The East End that enabled it to run a mobile food pantry from May to August 2020, delivering much-needed canned goods, meats and more, as well as essentials like gloves, cleaning supplies and toiletries; it also partnered with Open Arms Food Pantry to collect, package and deliver food throughout the community. They served more than 3,700 people with 192,000 pounds of food.
"It was fun for them and they also learned some lessons. We encountered some racial tensions even while we were out there trying to help by offering food," said Fulford. At one stop of its mobile pantry, Fulford explained, a resident expressed alarm at seeing Black people on her steps. "I understood this was a teachable moment and decided to remind her we were there to help," said Fulford, adding that the woman eventually accepted the help and apologized for her actions.
The girls are grateful for the range of experiences and opportunities. "I’m learning to be my best self," said Giselle Estrada-Kinderman, 14, a member for six years. "I used to be shy, but I’ve come out of my shell. I get a lot of support at BEP. It’s boosted my confidence." The Flanders resident especially loves the volunteer work. "We made Easter baskets for kids. We put together bags with essentials like toiletries and food for the homeless."
Robin Swann, 11, loves being on the step team and learning new things, especially Black history. She’s made good friends through BEP. The Mastic tween has been with the group for five years. As for Tijuana, "she’s beyond nice," said Robin.
From heart to heart
No doubt, it’s a mutual admiration society. Fulford is smitten with her girls. The 37-year-old is the mother of three, daughters 12 and 13 and a son, 16, but also to BEP’s more than 400 members. "Your daughter is my daughter," Fulford said.
Seven years ago, Fulford was an office manager for an rheumatologist. "I had a good job, making good money," she said. Having started BEP on the side, Fulford said there were a couple girls who would turn to her for advice. One day Fulford was so busy at work that she couldn’t make time for them. "Well, she said to me, ‘why don’t you make this your full-time job?’ " That got Fulford thinking about doing something bigger for girls. "They recruited me," she recalled.
She has no regrets about what’s become her life’s work. "I have a personal relationship with every girl. That’s a gift, curse, a burden. I sit in the window and watch their life, but I’m limited in what I can do. They are looking to me to come in on a white horse and save the day. I ask them to trust me. I ask myself, am I strong enough to climb the mountain when I have to climb with them on my back?"
Her husband, Troy, and church family help steady her when the load gets heavy. BEP relies primarily on volunteers. Late last year, BEP hired Brienne Ahearn, who lives in Riverhead, as program and development director. "She has become a friend to me and is starting to walk in her power with the girls," said Fulford.
"I'm incredibly honored to have joined The Butterfly Effect Project," said Ahearn, "as it's exactly what I want to be doing — helping to shepherd and support girls, broaden their horizons and give back to the community where I grew up."
Fulford is sustained by the victories. Like that of a girl who was in the program for five years. She had joined at 12, was from a single-parent home and had a brother with a mental disability; and their home burned down. Yet her dream was to become a fashion designer. BEP guided her, helping with paperwork for grants for college and more. They hired her as a clerical/personal assistant to earn money for college. BEP sent her and her mother to visit a college in California. The BEP board and others in the community gave money to help with college. That girl, Shanysa Tems, 19, of Medford, began studying at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles last October. "Everyone in BEP helped me more than they’d know, supporting and enabling my confidence and ability to do anything I put my mind to," she said.
Fulford also recalls stories that require a hankie. One girl, she said, had been in the group for six years, walking 30 minutes to meetings. But her troubled family life was too much, Fulford said, and she drifted away. "I chased her for eight months, calling, going to her house, I went to her job," Fulford said. "It takes a village. But she was surrounded by darkness."
Fulford notes being fueled by her own history: Her father was addicted to crack and alcohol; her mother was dyslexic and suffered from low self-esteem. "She had anger; she was in an abusive relationship with my dad," she said. "They loved each other, but they were two broken people."
One of five children, Fulford said she was labeled "the brain." "Why wasn’t I the pretty one? Being the brain meant I had to be perfect. I handled paperwork for my mother. ... My way out was the books. Studies came first," she said of her upbringing in Riverhead.
She was a Girl Scout, but she could not afford to go on many trips or buy the book, so she could not earn badges. "I could not afford the dues, so it made the other girls look down on me. I felt inferior," said Fulford.
It’s an experience that shaped BEP: "I wanted a group where all girls could come together and a network of friends and people would be born, where the haves and the have-nots can come learn, grow and assist one another."
The lioness as leader
If you want the lowdown on Fulford, talk to Karen McDonald, BEP’s board president from the outset. "We knew each other through business. I was one of the first people Tia told about her idea for BEP. After hearing her personal story and what she wanted to achieve, my entire family came together to help her," said McDonald, 65, a sales and marketing executive who lives in Aquebogue.
McDonald speaks glowingly of Fulford. "She absolutely refuses to let any obstacles deter her. Even when she is discouraged and worried, she picks herself back up and continues. I suspect her hardscrabble upbringing taught her innumerable lessons in persevering."
McDonald has seen life’s trajectory change for Butterfly girls: "Some of these kids’ grades improved, as did their relationships with family."
McDonald recalled the early days of BEP: "Tia would pick up girls who had no rides to the meetings in her vehicle that was always a step away from breaking down. I once saw her give her last $5 to a child who had shown an improved report card at a meeting."
Michelle Miller, 38, became a BEP volunteer last year after a friend’s encouragement. Miller, who lives in Mastic, prepares lessons for the 22 girls who meet on the Poospatuck Indian reservation, the newest chapter. "Girls need mentors, that’s a part of how they become their best," said Miller, who describes being inspired by Fulford. "She is a go-getter, down to earth and understands a lot. We connect as women, she gets me. I love her spirit and energy for our brown and Black girls."
As for the future, Fulford is working to get another grant to restart the mobile pantry. She is also developing plans for events in the community garden — like a wine and weed day ("You have a glass of wine and help weed"). She would also like to get a chef to lead a cooking lesson in the garden, and there’s likely to be a cookoff of sorts.
What’s on the Butterfly Effect Project’s wish list? A building to house its office, now in a church. "We need more space; we need staff. We want to address all the girls’ needs," Fulford said. "We would like a part-time life coach/career counselor."
In the meantime, she continues creating a safe space for girls to dream and succeed.
Butterfly Effect Project
To learn more, visit bepgirls.org or call 631-591-0759.