Be strong, smart, and bold. For April Williams ’07, vice president of programs for Girls Inc. of NYC, those three adjectives describe not only the nonprofit’s aspirations for its participants but also the approach she had to take in reimagining the organization’s programming for its 7,000 members during the pandemic. 

“We’ve become so much more innovative and creative during these times,” Williams says. “Everyone has been willing to shift and stretch in ways we haven’t before.” 

Founded in 1864, the network of Girls Inc. affiliates serves girls ages 6 to 18 at more than 1,500 sites in 350 cities across the United States and Canada. Working through individual schools, affiliates provide STEM, mental health, entrepreneurship, and other programs that teach each member to value herself, take risks, and discover and develop her inherent strengths. 

When Williams joined Girls Inc. of NYC in June 2019, it was an opportunity to utilize and expand upon strengths she’d developed throughout a decade of working at nonprofits dedicated to disadvantaged youth. “I felt like I had come full circle,” she says. “I’d been working with young women since before I could remember.” 

While at Colgate, she founded Sister-to-Sister, a group to empower young women on campus. After graduation, she spent three years at the Harlem Children’s Zone, where she not only personally supported more than 300 high school students and their families but also managed a team of 12 educational advisers and created several new programs, including one on healthy and safe relationships. “That was my entry point into how to build relationships and communities with young people and their families,” she says. 

At the National Black Child Development Institute, Williams sharpened her policy skills and networked with peers at likeminded organizations. “It helped me identify groups I should be connecting with to make sure I am giving voice to the policies that would affect Black and brown girls and boys,” she says. 

One of her goals upon joining Girls Inc. of NYC was to expand the organization’s partnerships beyond its 60 public school collaborations. As the pandemic erupted, her networking efforts accelerated. A four-week virtual entrepreneurship camp pulled in new members from across the city who did not have access to Girls’ Inc. programming in their schools. She teamed up with the Boys’ Club of New York for a first-ever coed collaboration: a virtual five-week career readiness camp. “The girls who participated were able to gain male mentors who could help shape them as they continue their journey,” Williams says. 

She also set up weekly virtual Girl Talk sessions, where members could connect online with the friends they missed, as well as Wellness Wednesdays, virtual mental and physical health check-ins for both students and staff members. Even as they were dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 on a personal level, including the death of loved ones, the Girls Inc. of NYC staff reached out to individual students and families to triage their urgent needs — from mortgage assistance to laptop support to mental health referrals. 

When Colgate Magazine talked to Williams in August, the new school year was ramping up and she was fielding numerous requests from potential new partners who want to incorporate Girls Inc. of NYC programs — especially its mental health instruction — into their virtual curriculum. “We have positioned ourselves in a way that we have become even more respected because of the work we’ve been able to do virtually,” Williams says. “We’re excited about the direction we’re heading.”