Written by Crystal Ward Kent
Most of us would count ourselves lucky if we could say we had helped change on person’s life during our lifetime. Cathy Duffy-Cullity can say that she has changed hundreds. As the recently retired director of Girls Inc. of New Hampshire, Duffy-Cullity, worked hard to help girls from all socio-economic backgrounds get the support they needed to fulfill their potential. Sometimes the girls came from low-income families and needed the basics, such as a good meal, clothing and school supplies. Other times, money was not the issue, and emotional support was needed. “Too many girls suffer from lack of self-esteem or poor body image,” says Duffy-Cullity. “They have no confidence. We also see girls who are being bullied or who are acting out because they are dealing with emotional pain. These issues affect girls from a wide range of backgrounds.”
Girls Inc. of New Hampshire is based in Manchester and Nashua, and was founded 45 years ago in Nashua. However, the roots of Girls Inc. go back to just after the Civil War, when the program was launched to help girls and women cope with the upheaval from that conflict. With so many young men killed or disabled, women began taking on more tasks and duties typically done by men, and Girls Inc. taught them the skills they needed. Over time, the organization has kept pace with societal changes, adapting to give today’s young women the foundation they need. Girls Inc. “inspires girls to be strong, smart and bold,” according to its motto, and focuses on developing “the whole girl,” through experiences, mentoring, and a positive, pro-girl environment.
Duffy-Cullity spent 23 rewarding years with Girls Inc., and reflects on why the organization has been so important to her. “We see girls overcoming tremendous challenges every day,” she says. “Their stories are incredible. We’ve seen girls sign up to run in our charity road race who only had flip flops to run in. Other girls have dinner here and it’s their only meal of the day. There are girls who have made dresses in sewing class and wear them all the time because these are the only clothes they have. Other girls have told us that their biggest fear, when transitioning to a new school—whether in a new town or just moving up from say, elementary to middle school–was walking into that lunch room the first day and not knowing anyone. Here, we have Lunch Buddies so no one eats alone. The Buddies help girls gain the social skills they need to make new friends. We give girls the sustenance they need and the tools to be successful in school and in life, and we see results. To see these girls come into their own is powerful and so rewarding.”
Making a Difference
Duffy-Cullity recalls a young teen who successfully advocated to the Girls Inc. board for financial support. “She was a good student taking an advanced math class and she needed a special calculator, but could not afford it. It cost around $100. She also noted that there were other Girls Inc. girls in the class in the same bind. Not having the necessary equipment was keeping them from achieving in that class, and reaching their goals. We were very impressed with her presentation and the courage that it took for her to speak out and ask for what she needed. Needless to say, we made sure that the girls got the calculators that they needed!”
One story nearly brings Duffy-Cullity to tears. “A few years back, a young girl in Nashua saw her mother murdered by her father in their home. He would have killed her and her siblings if she had not had the courage and presence of mind to lock them all in the bathroom. She called 911 from there. Through the tragedy and the aftermath, we were there for her, giving her the support and caring that she needed. She recently sent us a thank you note, saying that she is now at the third-ranked pharmacy school in the country, studying to be a pharmacist. Out of that horrific childhood, she still managed to rise to her potential. That’s the power we know is in these girls.”
Sometimes the role of Duffy-Cullity and her team, and of Girls Inc., is just to be there—a friendly, caring presence at the end of the school day, or to provide some fun in lives that can otherwise be stressful and bleak.
“One little girl came running up and gave me a hug and said she liked seeing me because I made her love herself,” she recalls. “I felt that there could be no better compliment. Loving yourself is so important. Sadly, we do get girls who are suicide risks. I had one girl tell me, some years later, that she was all set to kill herself when my face flashed in front of her. I happened to call at about that time. She didn’t go through with taking her life because she said she couldn’t do that to me. We had been close and she knew I’d be devastated. Today, she is doing well. I’ve always said, it only takes one person to make another person feel loved, to change their life, and that’s so true.”
Sometimes the girls’ needs are especially poignant, illustrating how important little pleasures are that other children take for granted. “Some girls mentioned to us how they dreaded the back-to-school season when other kids went shopping for clothes and supplies,” explains Duffy-Cullity. “Not only was there no money for these things, but often there was no one to take them. They heard about other kids having special days out with their parents, and such days were not possible for them. It was heart-breaking.”
Girls Inc. understands the importance of such moments, so the staff pooled resources and took those girls in need out for a day of school shopping and lunch. Everyone had a wonderful time, and the staff knew that this small gesture would have a lasting impact.
An Important Legacy
Throughout her two decades with Girls Inc., Duffy-Cullity faced many challenges, with the most persistent one being raising funds. “The director of any nonprofit knows that fundraising is always going to be the number one priority, and the biggest challenge,” she says. “You are constantly trying to make connections, to find new sources of income. You may have some great resources for several years, and then those go away, and you have to start again. You just accept that this will be an ongoing battle.”
And to Duffy-Cullity, one always worth fighting. “The benefits of working with Girls Inc., far outweighed any difficulties. To see these girls grow and change always gave me the energy to do what needed to be done.”
As Duffy-Cullity looks to her retirement, she remembers what got her involved with Girls Inc. in the first place. “I was the youngest of three girls and we grew up in Michigan,” she recalls. “My mother was a single parent and she was determined that we were going to have the best upbringing possible, with every opportunity. She worked incredibly hard to make sure that this happened. She got us into an excellent school, and every day, when we were little, she would check our clothes and hair and sing this little rhyme to us, ‘I think I can; I think I can; a Duffy girl knows she can!’ She was ahead of her time. My mother knew that if she told us every day that we were special; that we could do amazing things, that we would take that confidence with us out into the world–and we would accomplish whatever we set our minds to! And we have! When I heard about Girls Inc., I felt it had the same philosophy: Teach girls to believe in themselves and they will do achieve incredible things.”
Duffy-Cullity will miss “her girls” and Girls Inc., but is also looking forward to time with her husband, children and grandchildren, and to travel. She believes that her legacy is in good hands with the new director, Sharron McCarthy, and the excellent staff. “My wish for Girls Inc. is that it continues to grow and thrive,” she says. “Its work is needed today more than ever. We need to continue to help our girls become strong young women and realize their potential. I also want us to be able to continue our tradition of never turning any girl away because she cannot pay, as these are often the girls that need Girls Inc. the most. Our ‘graduates’ have shown how transformative this organization can be, and that you can never underestimate the power of a girl. Let’s keep showing the world what our girls can do.”