Heather Stark knows first-hand the challenges and struggles young girls face, issues that can be especially devastating if they lack confidence and self-worth.
“Low self-esteem can lead to so many problems for young girls. I know,” said Stark, 40, an award-winning educator and school counselor from Aledo. Recovering from anorexia, bulimia and self-doubt, she is the founder and director of Gracefully Strong, a curriculum-based self-esteem program for girls in fourth through eighth grades.
“My problems started in the sixth grade,” she said. “I remember looking at myself and thinking, ‘I’m not pretty. I can’t go to school today.’ That was something I did to myself. I wasn’t a fat child. I wasn’t a thin child but being thin was in. I believed I had to conform to society’s standards of what and who a girl should be. A perfect body, a perfect face, perfect emotions. There was no redeeming quality I could find in myself.”
Stark, the daughter of a military father and a teacher mother, moved with her family to Fort Worth when she was 13. She continued to battle eating disorders as a student at the University of North Texas. Eventually, she entered therapy thanks to her boyfriend, now her husband, Lanham Stark, a former teacher turned Realtor. The couple has a 14-year-old daughter, Isabella, and an 8-year-old son, Rafe.
“After my children were born, I decided one day that I was done with it all,” Stark said. “Once I told my family about my eating disorders it was so much easier. That moment when I knew I could like myself changed everything. I had to realize I was worthy before I could help others.”
Stark had switched her college major from history to psychology; she later earned a master’s degree in counseling from Dallas Baptist University. She worked for MHMR, helping children with disabilities, and was a special education teacher for six years, then a counselor for eight years.
“You wear so many hats as a counselor,” Stark said. “But the part of my job that I loved the most was working with girls, particularly fifth-grade girls, because that’s when everything changes. Girls at that age start to identify themselves on the outside and not on the inside. I can relate to girls and girls relate to me because I’ve been on that same journey. Now I’m hoping to empower them with confidence and self-acceptance the same way I’ve been through Gracefully Strong.”
The nonprofit organization came about in 2014 at the suggestion of her husband. Stark researched and wrote curriculum based on scientific research, childhood development and scholarly articles. The curriculum is aligned with the American School Counseling Association (ASCA) Student Standards and the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). There is also a biblical component for church groups.
With a grant from the Aledo Education Foundation, Stark started the eight-week program in the Aledo Independent School District, offering it both after school and during school hours.
“The response has been overwhelming,” she said.
During the first year the nonprofit completed 22 programs for 430 girls in Parker, Tarrant and Hood counties. More than $40,000 was generated at the organization’s inaugural fundraiser called the She Will Fly Dinner. Next year’s dinner is slated for Feb. 23 at Cendera Center in Fort Worth. In June, Gracefully Strong hosted a summer mini-camp in which 18 girls participated. On Oct. 7, the group will host a second annual benefit golf tournament at Aledo Split Rail Golf Course.
The organization is set to begin its second year this fall in a newly acquired building with partner Weatherford Christian School. The new digs will allow Gracefully Strong to host monthly community events as well as work with home-schooled girls.
Stark said the goal this year is to double the number of programs, to 44 or even 50 classes.
“We’re going back to many of the schools we’ve served with year-two curriculum,” she said. “With the new building and the addition of two staff members, we’re hoping to serve even more girls this year. I’m looking to expand the program to other schools and increase the number of girls. I want to extend this to 1,000 girls.”
Up to 20 girls meet weekly with Stark for eight weeks to participate in discussion and hands-on activities that help them understand their worth, their value and who they are. Each week the program focuses on a different lesson – such as self-acceptance, healthy body image, confidence or goal setting – that is based on the concepts learned from the previous week. The lessons are designed to empower each girl.
“Let’s be proactive,” Stark said. “Get them before problems grow and get worse. Let’s start talking to them about things while they’re still young enough to hear it. When you go through puberty you go through so many feelings and emotions. Then you’re out of high school and have to be an adult.”
The mission, Stark says, is to show girls they are each wonderfully made and that inner strength and self-worth are discovered and nurtured through healthy physical, spiritual and emotional choices.
“We’re different from other programs that empower girls in that we break it down into really small pieces,” she said. “There is a lot of conversation about confidence. We get the moms and dad involved. We give homework assignments for the week. Girls keep journals they reflect in.”
Gracefully Strong board member Paige Gasowski says every mom she’s talked to raves about the program. Everyone is impressed with the curriculum and with the way Stark teaches and reaches the girls.
“There is no way to describe how powerful Heather is with these girls. She relates to them. She responds to them. She makes them feel like no other,” Gasowski said. “Watching her joy and love and pure excitement when she is talking with the girls – even when she doesn't know I'm watching – is the most inspirational work I have ever seen. Amazing doesn't begin to describe Heather, or her love for these girls.”
Gasowski witnessed a huge change in her own daughter, 10-year-old Anna, after she went through the program.
“She learned so much from the program,” Gasowski said. “She learned about drama, gossip and self-doubt, and how those things can negatively affect you. She learned about self-worth and knowing that she is perfect just the way God made her. She learned that being herself is most important and what others think is not.
“My favorite part was picking up Anna every week after the program and listening to her. Listening to the excitement and joy in her voice. Being able to see what she loves about herself right in front of her. But also seeing what things she may not like about herself. It has opened up communication between us as well as between her and her dad. I know, being a part of GS, and seeing the good works it has done for my daughter, and hundreds other girls, has made me a better mom.”
As a supplement to Gracefully Strong, Stark started Grace & Grit, a company that teaches girls essential life skills and confidence through customized monthly boxes filled with challenges, lessons, activities, a journal and a charm. Each box highlights a historical figure with an accompanying character trait and lesson. The first box features Rosie the Riveter and her message of confidence. Wilma Rudolph represents perseverance, Audrey Hepburn selflessness, Amelia Earhart vision, Harriet Tubman courage, and Kate Warren, the first female detective in the United States, tenacity.
“It’s taking a trait and connecting it with a strong woman,” Stark said. “Girls need strong role models.”
One box costs $34.99, and a three-month subscription is $94.99. The proceeds from Grace & Grit support Gracefully Strong.
“Anna loves the boxes,” Gasowski said. “The charms are her favorite, but she also loves reading about the women, what they accomplished and also passing out the cards to other women to help them know they are wonderful just the way they are.”
Stark says Gracefully Strong not only helps girls understand who they are while they develop goals and communication skills, but it helps them learn to have grace, even in their darkest moments.
“Grace is in everything we do. Grace starts with you. You have to give it to yourself and then you can give it to others,” she said.
P.O. Box 827