Empowerment Through Empathy
Through her nonprofit empowerHER, Cara Belvin offers much needed support and empathy to girls who have lost their mothers…and connects them to others like themselves.
Few experiences in life are as devastating and isolating for a young girl as losing her mother. But thanks to Cara Belvin’s organization empowerHER, Massachusetts girls between the ages of 5 and 18 who have lost their moms now have access to a unique kind of support. Each girl is paired with a mentor, a woman who herself has experienced grief and bereavement, and who has been carefully vetted by Cara and her staff.
Cara was just nine years old when she lost her own beloved 37-years-young mother, Kit Murphy, to breast cancer. Thanks to Kit’s foresight and preparation, Cara was surrounded by loving, supportive extended family and friends after her mother was gone. But it wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood how valuable that support had been.
“When I looked back as an adult, I recognized how much support I had, and I’m so grateful. Not every girl has that reality. When you grow up in suburban America and lose your mother and have no support, you’re the one the other girls are talking about.”
Noticing a Need
Gypsy Sky Photohouse
In 2013, seeing girls who needed the kind of support she’d had, Cara started empowerHER in Scituate, Massachusetts, a coastal town 30 miles south of Boston. Currently the nonprofit serves some 90 girls across the state of Massachusetts as far as two to three hours away from headquarters.
The organization places a high priority on respecting what kind of support the family would prefer. They sit with the daughter and her father or guardian to find out whether the girl would like to be matched with one of the empowerHER mentors or someone who’s already in her life.
Cara shares the story of a 16 year-old girl whose mother had died of brain cancer. “The girl’s dad mentioned as a possibility a woman named Andrea, who was a friend of his late wife, but he admitted he was afraid of burdening her with this responsibility. When we reached out to Andrea, she said, ‘I feel like I’m stepping on his toes, but I do want to be there for her.’ We made that match, and Andrea texted me afterward and said, ‘Thank you for this. We stayed up till 1 a.m. organizing her bedroom and turning it into an adolescent’s room.’ It was one of my proudest moments.
“Imagine that story played over and over. A mentor watching her play soccer. Taking her to get their nails done. Taking her on a mini vacation. As a mentor, you’re giving the girl a glimpse into what your own life became, despite your loss. It’s very simple but pretty remarkable what our mentors have done.”
For the Love of Mom
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Cara reflects further on her own experience as a young girl who’s lost her mother. “When your mom dies young, she’s perfection your eyes. I knew her to be a smart, hardworking, beautiful, funny woman. As I got older I learned of her flaws from her family. I loved that. A lot of women say, ‘Oh you look and sound just like your mother.’ That kind of pressure served me well, to live up to who she was and live her legacy. She was a very strong woman, the oldest of five, an educated school teacher and a courageous, stay-at-home mom.
“Starting the nonprofit was bold, and she gave me wings to fly. She gave me a foundation to see a beautiful life and do great things with my life, despite such trauma and pain.”
Still, she says, it was isolating to grow up thinking she was the only one grieving. She adds that EmpowerHER started as an organization for fun events where girls would know they’re not alone. They range from ice cream socials, to yoga sessions, to surf lessons at the beach, to the Mother’s Day retreat, which, according to Cara, is one of the most emotional experiences of the year.
Feel the love! Participants at the empowerHER retreat (top row and bottom photo) are involved in a variety of activities, including art classes and meditation workshops. A mentor and mentee (center left) are so happy together at an event, and empowerHer girls learn how to surf.
Photo credit: Gypsy Sky Photohouse (row 1,3) Ivana Doria Photography (row 2)
“The events are magical,” Cara reflects. “You have 20 girls in a room who have been through this indescribable experience. A bond forms, despite different personality types. They have their own sideline conversations about funny things that happen with dad. And the awkward things people say. They get to commiserate and share and laugh it off.”
Of the different kinds of support they may have, she says, the girls tell her the support from empowerHER is helping them the most. “A father says this is the only thing that’s working for his daughter. Maybe she goes to therapy, but she’s not getting enough out of it. This helps them understand that everyone experiences adversity, and they’re not alone in this. I want these girls to meet each other now, so they can be strong and confident and supported and live with their grief. While I was a school student, it was like carrying a one-ton brick in my chest, even though I had family and sports and people in my life. So I can’t be dishonest and say the grief will just go away. It will take a lot of work.”
Ivana Doria Photography
A Career of Service
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EmpowerHER is far from the only work in Cara’s life. Having begun her career as a school psychologist, she eventually segued into the world of nonprofit management and fundraising. Six years ago, she started her own nonprofit consulting firm, Murphy & Company. She says she learned a lot about how nonprofits are run from one of her clients, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, knowledge that helped her in establishing empowerHER. She works for empowerHER as an unpaid volunteer, and she is also the mother of a son and daughter, ages ten and six respectively.
She seems proud that as she and her husband work to raise their son and daughter in a philanthropic home, the kids actually “get it.” Their son knows every girl he’s met at empowerHER by name and understands that his mom doesn’t earn a salary for her time at the organization. Their daughter, in pretend play, started an animal shelter.
“I hope and pray my kids understand that I did this not because I was putting anyone else before them, but to teach them about kindness and courage,” Cara reflects.
“Service to others is what feeds my soul,” she continues. “I do it to do it. I juggle. I’m a working mother. There are so many worthwhile causes and nonprofits people can get involved with. We have about 200 volunteers – men and women. For the women at empowerHER, they’ve said this is more healing than anything they’ve ever done, a gift to them in their grief journey. Like it was for me.”
Feature photo by Ivana Doria Photography