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Date: 2015-07-28

TEAM Academy Alumna Making an Impact in the Newark Community

A'Dorian Murray-Thomas had a chance to study abroad in Madrid this summer, which she says would have allowed her to become fluent in Spanish.

But the senior from Swarthmore College, a small, liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, passed up that opportunity to pursue what's turning out to be her niche.

Murray-Thomas, 20, is passionate about civic and social responsibility, and that's why she chose to stay in Newark, her hometown, to mentor a group of city girls whose lives mirror her own experiences.

"This was of chief importance,'' she says.

Like Murray-Thomas, many of the 12- and 13-year-old girls have lost family members to violence. Don't worry, though, there's no need for pity.

This is about a sisterhood among 12 girls who didn't know one another a month ago. When they first met at Newark's Hayes Park West Recreation Center, some were shy and didn't want to mingle. Now, after spending time with Murray-Thomas, you can't keep them apart.

"If one person doesn't have something, we make sure we give to each other,'' says Malayjah Williams, 11.

Give it up for their big sister, who, in such a short time, has become the person they look to for guidance – hanging onto her every word.

"You can tell her anything and she won't tell anyone,'' says Shariah Brown, 11. "Because of her, I'm learning how to love myself and have more respect for myself."

At a minimum, Murray-Thomas is in their lives three days a week through a program she developed and funded with a $10,000 scholarship from Swarthmore.

The program is called "SheWins,'' and the name of the nonprofit organization reflects what's been happening with the girls.

They are winning because they are confident. They see the value in asking questions. And they have Murray-Thomas to thank – all because she did not go to Spain. She believes in giving back to Newark and, especially, young girls – who need someone other than family members to help them.

"SheWins" may have started this summer, but Murray-Thomas could see it becoming a reality when she was a high school senior, listening to Swarthmore officials talk about the Eugene M. Lang Opportunity Scholarship.

"They actually gave kids money to do something that mattered,'' she says.

Murray-Thomas was among six students selected last year to receive the scholarship money, which she uses to operate the program. But the application process began in her sophomore year; she was one of 70 applicants who wrote proposals to address a social problem. That would have been 2013, when there were 10 murders in 10 days in Newark when she came up with he idea to help girls impacted by violence.

The crime spree made her think of her dad, a Guyanese immigrant who was shot and killed in Newark by a teenager when was she just 7-years-old.

She wasn't able to contextualize the underlying issues back then, but now she can.

"Would he (the kid) have picked up the gun if the opportunities he had were different?'' she asks.

Was it a lack of education? Or was it poverty and cycles of violence, she says, that caused the young man to rob and kill her dad.

Through this program, Murray-Thomas teaches the girls how to be leaders in both community service projects and by making them aware of social justice issues regarding class and equality. No topic is too heavy, including any that may have been the reasons for lost souls to gun down others.

What matters to Murray-Thomas is that "SheWins" helps girls such as 13-year-old Aaliyah Bellamy to cope when her niece was killed."When you lose somebody, you're depressed and it feels like there's no future,'' Aaliyah says. "This shows how you can bounce back."

That's what Murray-Thomas has done and she has not wasted anytime keeping the girls busy. Her group was among 225 girls from around the world who heard Michelle Obama speak during a girls' empowerment conference in Washington, D.C. Murray-Thomas chaperoned the trip, along with three youth summer interns from the city, which provided the transportation. She paid for the gas and food with money from the scholarship.

In case you haven't noticed, it is all part of the norm for Murray-Thomas to be in the mix. She gets it from her mother, Dana Murray, who was always on the go, seeing to the circumstances of foster kids in her caseload when she was a social worker.

At Swathmore, Murray-Thomas is co-president of the Black Student Union and a peer counselor. When she's not in class – she's studying political science, with a minor in black studies and education – Murray-Thomas plays lacrosse and works with fifth- to seventh- graders in an alternative suspension program near her college.

The end of August will be tough for Murray-Thomas, when she leaves the girls to return to Swarthmore."Those are my babies,'' she says.

They'll miss her, too, but not for long. She set up the "SheWins" program so that she can come home once a month in the fall to be with them.

"I'm drawn to it," she says. "I don't even know if I had a choice."

Probably not, but that's a good thing.