Mar. 02, 2021

by Raquel Laneri

When she was 13 years old, Jennielee arrived in Philadelphia from Puerto Rico. Her family had been displaced after Hurricane Maria devastated her home in 2017, and she found herself in a new city where she didn’t understand the language. She had trouble adjusting. So her mother enrolled her into a summer program at The Evoluer House, a nonprofit that mentors girls of color, run by Advertising and Communications alum Cheryl Ann Wadlington.

Cheryl Ann Wadlington.

“Jennielee said when she came to this country, she didn’t even know she had a voice,” Wadlington recounts proudly. “But now she realizes that she can use her voice to change the world.”

Wadlington has used her own voice—as a journalist, a motivational speaker, and a social justice advocate—for good. In October, L’Oréal named her a 2020 Woman of Worth. The program recognizes 10 women around the globe for community service, and the distinction comes with a $10,000 donation to each honoree’s cause.

“I was screaming on the floor,” Wadlington says of the moment she received the news. “It’s an opportunity to have our nonprofit, the voices of so many marginalized girls of color, heard throughout the world.”

Community service has been a part of Wadlington’s life since her childhood in Philadelphia.

“I come from a family full of pastors and bishops,” she says. “My mother was a civil rights activist; she marched with Martin Luther King. And my brother was an AIDS activist.”

After studying at FIT, Wadlington worked as a journalist, but in between attending Fashion Week and interviewing Iman, she tutored underserved girls in Camden, New Jersey. That program—and many programs she volunteered with—eventually shuttered due to lack of funding. So in 2004, she opened her own nonprofit dedicated to teen girls, The Evoluer House (evoluer means “to evolve” in French), back in her hometown.

At the time, Wadlington says, “No one was talking about the school-to-prison pipeline for young girls of color.” Yet it was a big problem. A study by Columbia University and the African American Policy Forum found that Black girls were six times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts, who often suffered far less severe consequences for similar behaviors. And high school dropouts are far more likely to end up in prison than those with a diploma.

“We knew we had to step in and do something to make sure these girls graduate high school on time and break the intergenerational cycle of poverty,” Wadlington says.

In 16 years, The Evoluer House has nurtured 2,000 girls of color. Photos courtesy of The Evoluer House

The Evoluer House offers summer and after-school programs that help girls aged 13 to 18  find college and career success, far beyond SAT prep and resume building. Girls attend power lunches with CEOs and university recruiters. They learn money management from financial experts and get skin care advice from medical aestheticians. They even produce their own podcast, Girl Truth, where the teen hosts talk about issues such as Black Lives Matter, the COVID-19 pandemic, and trans rights. 

“We work on the whole girl, from the inside out,” Wadlington says.

In 16 years, 2,000 girls have graduated from The Evoluer House’s programs, with 90 percent going on to attend a four-year college. Wadlington hopes to expand its reach even further.

“The pandemic has made us rethink our programs and think of ways we can give the support our girls need virtually,” Wadlington says. Now, with The Evoluer House’s robust online presence, young women outside of Philadelphia can take advantage of its offerings. 

“Girls everywhere are wondering about their future, about the pandemic and all this social unrest, wondering what they can do,” Wadlington says. “They need our love and nurturing more than ever.”