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Chicago non-profit founder nominated for CNN Hero Award

Blair Brettschneider, founder and executive director of GirlForward, nominated in the "Young Wonder" category

  • Blair Brettschneider, Camp GirlForward founder and Executive director, poses with attendees of this year's Camp GirlForward
Blair Brettschneider, Camp GirlForward founder and Executive director,… (Blair Brettschneider )
August 29, 2013|By Courtney Griffin | RedEye

Like many college students, Blair Brettschneider, a graduate of the University of Miami, admits that just a few years ago her future seemed rather uncertain.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” said Brettschneider, a Michigan native who studied journalism. She contemplated possibly writing for a magazine, or better yet, starting a magazine of her own—a self-described “smart” publication for girls (“I was sick of looking at prom dresses,” she said).

But just two short years later, Brettschneider is far from the magazine business—instead, at the age of 24, she is being nationally hailed as a hero.

The Lincoln Square resident was recently named a nominee for the CNN Hero Awards, an annual awards ceremony hosted by the news network that honors “everyday people changing the nation.”

Brettschneider is being honored for her work as the founder of GirlForward, a non-profit organization in West Ridge. GirlForward, founded in 2011, is dedicated to empowering refugee girls who have resettled in Chicago.

“Chicago, for a long time, has taken in many refugees,” Brettschneider said. “But now, more than ever, Chicago is into startups and new ideas.” The city’s innovative spirit made it the perfect place for Brettschneider to launch GirlForward, the first organization of its kind in the U.S.

As an AmeriCorps volunteer right out of college, Brettschneider made the move from Coral Gables to Chicago to work for RefugeeOne, an Uptown organization that provides opportunities to those displaced by war and persecution. During her time at RefugeeOne, Brettschneider met Domi, a refugee from the war-torn African country of Burundi, and began to informally mentor Domi on her own.

“She was really struggling,” said Brettschneider of Domi, who was at risk of dropping out of high school when she began working with Brettschneider in 2011. “She was trying to learn English, to go to college and become a nurse, but she just didn’t have time to do all of those things.”

While the pair soon set goals to provide opportunities for Domi’s future, they inadvertently created an opportunity for Brettschneider as well.

“We call her GirlForward zero,” said Brettschneider, with a laugh, about Domi as the inspiration for her organization. Brettschneider opened GirlForward on her own soon after and modeled the organizations’s mentoring program after her mentoring of Domi.

Two years after its founding, GirlForward serves more than 50 refugee girls in Chicago, with a three-part mentoring program that provides English education, financial literacy and opportunities to meet friends, mentors, tutors and role models in the community. The organization depends on grants from organizations and volunteers from Chicago to keep up its programs.

“We started with enough money to pay for food and background checks,” Brettschneider said. “But now that some grant money is coming in, we are able to expand.”

Brettschneider said she was alone in her office earlier this summer when she received a call from CNN, informing her that she was a nominee for the award.

“They came in to shoot a video, and everyone was there for that,” Brettschneider said. “The hardest part was keeping it all a secret.”

When Brettschneider finally shared the good news with friends on Facebook and Twitter, she was shocked at the massive reaction.

“All of my friends started sharing the link and posting it," she said. "I didn’t realize how big this all was.”

Fittingly enough, Brettschneider, who has become a mentor and motherly figure to many of the girls she works with, was nominated by her mom.

Domi still comes back to visit Brettschneider—that is, when she has the time, in between classes at Harold Washington College where she is studying nursing.

“Working with [Domi] was an eye-opening experience,” Brettschneider said. “We still keep in touch, and now she’ll come back to GirlForward to help other girls and meet with girls from Burundi. It’s amazing to see the transformation.”

If Brettschneider finds out that she is a top 10 finalist in October, then she will be invited to the televised award ceremony in November, where she can only hope she will bump into a certain silver-haired CNN star.

“Everyone keeps asking if Anderson Cooper called!” she laughed.

For more information and opportunities to volunteer for GirlForward, visit www.girlforward.org.

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