One of the most lasting memories at Girls Inc. for Kelis Rowe had nothing to do with jumping rope or playing jacks, and it wasn’t learning about human sexuality or performing skits. It was about personal hygiene. It was also about dignity.
“One time in the summer, a girl came in with strong body odor,” remembers Kelis, whose name then was Raquel Williams (Kelis Rowe is her pen name). “Instead of singling out the person, we all sat in a circle and talked about the importance of personal hygiene. Then the girls took turns in the bathroom washing our armpits and they passed around deodorant. Back then, I wondered why they didn’t just make her do it. Today, I understand they wanted to teach her without humiliation. It was a much-needed lesson in empathy.”
That lesson was one of many for Kelis, who says Girls Inc. was a survival experience for her because of her social anxiety. “It was my happy place. There was no anxiety and I loved the freedom of girlhood and being able to just play. It was a loving environment where I was part of a community that was not restrictive and not controlled. Those experiences helped me with my social anxiety at school and I was able to participate in public speaking opportunities, poetry and the performance choir at school.”
Kelis took part in Girls Inc. at the LeMoyne Gardens Extension Center. Her mom was the property manager for LeMoyne Gardens and brought Kelis and her sister Adriane from another neighborhood to attend Girls Inc. (Adriane Johnson-Williams is a former chair of the Girls Inc. of Memphis board of Directors and will be the focus of our next alumna profile!)
After graduating high school in 1995, Kelis earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Christian Brothers University. Opting not to pursue a career in psychology, she worked as a marketing researcher until she became a stay-at-home mom and homeschooler. Today, in addition to mom duties, she’s a budding young adult author, with a book—Finding Jupiter—set to be released in summer 2022.
The novel focuses on young love and the experiences of Black girls in Memphis.
“They can see themselves and relate to this experience,” she says.
Her experiences at Girls Inc., she says,? and who she is now.
“Over time I’ve come to realize how fortunate I’ve been to have been part of Girls Inc. and what a true act of love it is for women to cultivate a village for girls to blossom inside of,” Kelis said. “My Black-girlhood was honed in the walls of that center where I learned to play jacks and double-Dutch and got to braid hair and do skits and dance numbers.”
“Being at Girls Inc. wasn’t school and it wasn’t church,” she says. It was a village she’ll never forget.
“In my life as a mother, I have joined family and child-centered groups and have made it a point to uplift girls and to be among aunties who form a village that affirms and equips girls (and boys) for life in ways that only a village can.”
Girls Inc. Alumna
Participant from 1983 to 1988