Clothing from DILLARD’S. Hair by LORI WENGER. Makeup by Belle & Blush.

The tides have turned. Walk through any department store, any big-box chain, and you’ll see kids’ clothes emblazoned with a brightly colored “GRL PWR,” books mapping out the careers of female pioneers in their fields and toys depending less on implausible body measurements and more on critical thinking.

The world is a different place than it was a decade ago. For better or worse, today’s youth were raised online and connected to the far reaches of our world. They see — and participate in — the conversations we’re having about roles, expectations and barriers, and with a front-row view of all the things that make us better or worse.

Of course, it’s one thing to sport a snazzy T-shirt. It’s quite another to actively challenge the systems set in place by the generations before them. And kids today seem perfectly poised to do both.

For proof, look to the seven young women in the Above and Beyond Sweetheart Leadership program, a continuation of the American Heart Association program for girls who went “above and beyond” Sweetheart requirements with more than 70 volunteer hours under their belts.

As Sweethearts, sophomore girls must log multiple volunteer hours, but the backbone of the program is its structured, in-depth curriculum educating the girls on heart disease, the top killer of women in the U.S.

“The sophomore year is a year of real growth for students in many ways,” says Tammy Quick, director of AHA’s main fundraiser, the Heart Ball. “These girls want to learn, want to grow, want to be a part of something way bigger than themselves and know they can make a difference.”

Currently wrapping up its first year, the Above and Beyond program is designed to hand the reins over to the now-11th-grade girls, giving them space to explore what leadership looks like in their communities.

“Developing a platform for each individual leader to excel in their own style of leadership, gaining confidence in their knowledge of AHA, advocacy, health and influence, with their input, suggestions and ideas made the program very fluid,” Quick says.

The goals of the program are still very much rooted in heart and overall health, though not all members plan to enter the medical field. Members are called to learn about everything from AHA initiatives to grassroots health movements in vulnerable communities, with the end goal of finding ways they can help by educating and leading others to change, including serving as mentors for current Sweethearts.

“These girls were already on the right trajectory, so Above and Beyond provided a step to understanding that you can make a difference and that it takes a lot of people and professions working together to move the needle of change,” Quick says. “That will keep these leaders involved in their community, volunteering, advocating and making a difference.”

In short, Above and Beyond sets the stage for not only making life-saving impacts on strangers and loved ones alike, it also builds a strong foundation for future mentor/mentee female relationships. And from the looks of this next generation of female powerhouses, our future is full of strong women leading the way in everything from science to entrepreneurship to environmental advocacy.

Meet the Young Women of Above & Beyond

Merideth West
Pulaski Academy

Future plans: Biology with pre-med or pre-dental focus

What made you want to continue the Sweetheart program? I wanted to peruse the Sweetheart program to expand my knowledge of heart health and learn more about the importance of making volunteering a part of my daily life.

When did you realize this wasn’t just another extracurricular activity? I realized this was not just any other extracurricular when I started realizing all of the new things I was learning from the program that stood out from other activities that I’m involved in.

What’s something you learned about yourself that you didn’t expect?Something I learned about that I didn’t expect is how many people it takes to functionally run an organization or hospital like the American Heart Association and St. Vincent’s.

How have your day-to-day actions changed since being a part of this program? My day-to-day actions have changed because I now highly value my weekly volunteer service and I am more conscientious of my eating habits that will affect my heart health.

How will you take what you learn into your career path? I will take what I have learned from this experience with me through my life by possibly minoring in nutrition to find out more about other ways to be heart healthy and spread the knowledge I have gained with others about the importance of volunteering in your community.


Jenna Villiger
Mount St. Mary Academy

Future plans: University of Mississippi, Biochemical engineering with pre-med focus

What made you want to continue the Sweetheart program? With my family's connection to heart issues, I knew it would be a great opportunity to further my awareness and spread the American Heart Association's mission statement.

When did you realize this wasn’t just another extracurricular activity? I think this year when I got to experience the events in a smaller group, I was more largely impacted by the messages of the various speakers. Being older, I'm now able to realize that these lessons I'm learning directly affect my life.

What’s something you learned about yourself that you didn’t expect?I learned that when I'm passionate about a cause such as the American Heart Association, I can be outgoing to spread awareness when I'm typically more of a follower.

How have your day-to-day actions changed since being a part of this program? I now have a greater appreciation for my heart health and am more greatly aware that behavioral habits play a large role in how healthy and happy I am, which has translated into my diet and exercise.

How will you take what you learn into your career path? Through this connection to this program I have realized that the heart and its vital functions truly interest me and now have a passion to care for the sick to prevent coronary diseases and episodes by aiming to become a cardiologist.


Olivia Olsen
Little Rock Christian Academy

Future plans: Nursing School

What made you want to continue the Sweetheart program? I wanted to continue learning about the medical field and doing volunteer work in something I'm interested in.

When did you realize this wasn’t just another extracurricular activity? When I began volunteering at CHI St. Vincent, making connections with those in the hospital and helping alongside doctors and nurses

What’s something you learned about yourself that you didn’t expect?I learned that I enjoy the medical field and want to help others.

How have your day-to-day actions changed since being a part of this program? I have learned to care for others more and strived to push in academics to help me in the medical field.


Jessica Kirk
Lonoke High School

Future plans: ASU Beebe, Nursing

What made you want to continue the Sweetheart program? The leadership opportunity and the chance to experience more in the medical field

When did you realize this wasn't just another extracurricular activity? When we got to tour different parts of the medical fields and learned about heart disease

What's something you learned about yourself you didn't expect? I had an interest for nursing.

How have your day-to-day actions changed since being a part of this program? I’ve been less antisocial and I’ve learned to speak with people.

How will you take what you learn into your career path? I’ll use the medical knowledge I’ve learned about in the medical field.


Anna Rose Hamilton
North Little Rock High School

What made you want to continue the Sweetheart program? I had an amazing experience my first year, was interested in continuing to learn about heart disease and prevention and wanted to strengthen my relationships with the women I met through this awesome program.

When did you realize this wasn’t just another extracurricular activity? In the beginning, the amount of volunteer hours was an indicator that this wasn’t just another activity like I had participated in through school, and I realized the true importance of the work I did as a Sweetheart would actually impact the lives of many people.

What’s something you learned about yourself that you didn’t expect?The program gave me the opportunity to volunteer at select hospitals around central Arkansas. Through this I realized how much I really love to serve others and make a positive difference in their lives.

How have your day-to-day actions changed since being a part of this program? I feel mentally and physically stronger, healthier and more equipped to deal with not only my daily peer interactions, but, in the event of an emergency situation, I would know what to do and how to help someone having a cardiac or brain episode. Through the Sweetheart Leadership program, I gained many important skills and tips to successfully get me into college, through college and eventually to my career.

How will you take what you learn into your career path? Though I have yet to decide what major I will pursue, the skills, habits and friendships that I have gained will be helpful in all areas of life.


Mary-Kaylin Linch
Little Rock Christian Academy

Future plans: Baylor University, pre-med with a focus in neuroscience

What made you want to continue the Sweetheart program? I wanted to invest in girls' lives to plant the passion of volunteerism as the women in AHA did for me.

When did you realize this wasn't just another extracurricular activity? I realized this was more than just an extracurricular when I realized that volunteering, investing in others and learning was a way of life.

What's something you learned about yourself you didn't expect? I learned how much volunteering doesn’t just help others but it helps me and further ignites my passion for the medical field.

How have your day-to-day actions changed since being a part of this program? They have gone from focusing on myself to focusing on others and how I can help others.

How will you take what you learn into your career path? I will use my experience as a hospital volunteer as my basis for medical school. I have already been put in so many more sensitive situations that will be foreign territory for other medical students.


Taylor Moran
Little Rock Christian Academy

Future plans: Focus in performance arts

What made you want to continue the Sweetheart program? I love being able to give back to my community by volunteering and I was so excited to be able to mentor my own group of Sweethearts.

When did you realize this wasn't just another extracurricular activity? When I was able to go into the hospitals and actually help some of the patients and be able to brighten their day.

What's something you learned about yourself you didn't expect? I learned that I really love to help take care of others and that I had a lot of patience when working with them.

How have your day-to-day actions changed since being a part of this program? I have realized how blessed I am to be a part of this program, and have now been able to know the signs of heart attacks and strokes. I have also, through this program, been able to educate some of my family and friends of heart disease.

How will you take what you learn into your career path? This program has helped me to be able to communicate better with others and learn how to work through difficult situations.

Girls of Promise

Gov. Asa Hutchinson meets with participants of the Girls of Promise program.

Eighth grade is no easy task. Along with physical, mental and emotional changes the age brings, it also brings plenty of peer and societal pressures.

And because of those pressures, along with a lack of role models and support from parents and teachers, it’s at this age that girls begin to lose interest in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

These girls face a host of misconceptions, and for the last 20 years, the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas has worked to dispel them through its Girls of Promise program. The two-day conference brings together STEM-loving eighth-grade girls to learn from activities, from each other and from women in fields such as coding, welding and the medical world.

“It encourages the girls to stay engaged and not give up just because the subject is hard,” WFA Interim Executive Director Cindy Thornton says. “They can see that women can be and are successful in STEM, and that through self-confidence and perseverance they, too, can pursue a career in STEM.”

WFA helped blaze the trail for STEM education in 1999, but according to Thornton, there’s still much to do. Fortunately, many organizations have joined the efforts to increase the number of women in STEM professions. And, Thornton says, with everyone working together, they can begin to shift perceptions on a critical issue that isn’t just about fields of study.

“In Arkansas, women currently earn only 79 cents on the dollar of what men earn,” Thornton says. “There is an even bigger wealth gap with women owning only 32% as much as men. These types of discrepancies lead to more women and their children living in poverty in our state. We believe one good way to start changing these numbers is to get more girls interested in higher-paid STEM careers.”

Girls in STEM

Each summer, you’ll find STEM sisters in arms at the Museum of Discovery in downtown Little Rock. An immersive experience, this free five-day workshop gives girls ages 12-15 the chance to get hands-on experience working with female STEM professionals in fields ranging from architecture to nanotechnology to meteorology.

Over the course of a week, the girls will do everything from make cosmetics to suture a wound on pigs feet at sessions held in Little Rock, Jonesboro, Blytheville and Stuttgart.

As in other STEM programs, there’s a driving force to break down stereotypes and change the chemistry of male-dominated fields. But according to Girls in STEM Coordinator Shannon Jones, one of the biggest game-changers is the community of acceptance built between girls.

“We provide a safe space for them to explore STEM fields and careers without being judged or labeled,” Jones says. “It’s amazing to see a young girl’s confidence blossom when they connect with other girls who have the same interests and goals. They have formed a like-minded community that accepts them, and they in turn encourage each other.”

For Jones, while it’s important to help provide a more stable future for these girls, it’s also crucial to create an even playing field for them now, to empower them to see how they can impact the world around them.

“We try to reach these young girls and show them real world relevance to help them solve problems that are already socially relevant in their lives and in their communities and schools,” she says.

“Our wish is that they take this experience and latch on to something that sparks a passion in them and make it their own.”

Girl Scouts

For many girls, their first experience with female independence and empowerment comes in the form of a green and brown uniform and a sash full of patches. And while some may simply see cookies and friendship bracelets, to Girl Scouts - Diamonds of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas CEO Dawn Prasifka, it’s an ideal environment for developing courage, confidence and character.

“Girls are shaped from a very young age by a variety of female role models, and the influence of those individuals is so important in demonstrating female empowerment that contributes to a girl’s healthy development and sense of self,” Prasifka says. “All of these people affect how a girl views her own potential. It’s critical for a girl to see confidence, leadership and accomplishment in other women in order to envision herself with those qualities.”

In 1912, Girl Scouts was developed to provide girls with the knowledge, skills and experiences to be successful and self-sufficient. In 2019, that takes the form of robotics classes, environmental stewardship, financial literacy, civic engagement and mechanical engineering. In fact, the CEO of Girl Scouts nationwide is a rocket scientist and former Apple executive.

And while climbing the corporate ladder is great, that’s not the point of Girl Scouts, and it’s not why Prasifka comes to work every day.

“I want to present the model of being a complete person, one who learns her strengths and weaknesses and builds skills to be successful in life, who develops values that guide who she wants to be and who makes the most of the traits and opportunities she has as a female,” Prasifka says.

“I want girls to see there are no obstacles in the world to becoming who they want to be.”