When Erica Ayala saw her picture hanging up in the rotunda of the California State Capitol building, she felt fulfilled yet humbled.
Named Woman of the Year for the Central Valley’s 12th district by Senator Anthony Cannella, Ayala knew it was an honor to be recognized for something that started out under a canopy on back-to-school night.
Four years ago, she had the idea to start a program that would help young women empower themselves and realize their potential in life.
She called it Invest In Me.
She handed out flyers and talked to passersby about her agenda to show women that they could do anything they put their minds to, but they have to be confident in who they are in order to make lasting change.
“Believe in yourself, and once you invest in yourself, things happen,” she says.
The first meetings were held in Ayala’s living room. The parents who attended knew there was something special happening, so they endorsed it from the very beginning.
Now, the weekend workshops, held one Saturday a month (seven months of the year) at the Patterson Teen Center, are complete with guest speakers and discussion topics pertinent to the lives of young women.
The workshops also teach girls about what is going on right now. With all of the fervor and heightened awareness swirling around sexual harassment, it is important that they address the topic in school and the community as well as learn to advocate for themselves.
Education and self-growth are both equally important, so it is vital that the two are balanced in order to have a healthy and productive life.
Ayala says the misconception that the youth are ill-informed or uninterested in the world “is wrong. They just need a chance to have their voice heard.”
Which is exactly what Invest In Me teaches them to do.
Among the range of topics handled are learning to register to vote, mental health, getting involved in city council, women’s history, and even running for office.
They also take what they call “self-exploration trips” and hikes to gain perspective on life. The participants are girls aged from 7 to 18, but the majority of them are in high school.
The program is also centralized for the Westside communities, such as Patterson and Gustine, because there is a real need for self-preservation and growth in these often neglected areas.
But Ayala admits that even though Invest In Me started with her, it definitely doesn’t end with her. There is a large contingent of people that help keep the program viable and ever-present.
Without the volunteers, the college interns donating their time, and the community members showing their support, it wouldn’t have the foundation it needs to stand strongly.
“It’s been a learning process, and you can’t be scared to ask for help,” Ayala says. “I’m fortunate to have people that believe in the mission.”
But for it to be fruitful, the road to success must begin internally.
“As women, we always want to give, but doors open when you invest in yourself. You need to get to the root of causes to help things get better, and we’re doing our part,” she says.
Ayala did her part by earning a double major from Cal State Stanislaus in Communications and Gender Studies, as well as a Master’s in Leadership from St. Mary’s College.
In addition to helping run the non-profit organization Invest In Me, she also works as a Project Manager in Juvenile Dependency, advocating for foster youths’ education rights and success in San Joaquin County.
With nearly all of Ayala’s focus on helping adolescent girls to navigate an increasingly scary and shifting world, it’s no wonder the state government acknowledged her selfless work.
She feels great about the award, but she also accepted it on behalf of the community. There are others who are deserving of it, she admits, but is still very grateful.
“When you do something for love and passion, you don’t expect to be recognized. When you are, it’s humbling, but there is also a sense that the work isn’t done,” she says.
Ayala is about due to have a daughter of her own, and she wants her to grow up knowing that anything is possible.
She also feels “a sense of responsibility” to her unborn child. “I want my daughter to go to the state Capitol and not feel like it’s a foreign place.”
Another goal Ayala has with the program is to instill in young women pride for their community, so they can return, imbue others with a sense of accomplishment, and keep the cycle of knowledge and drive going.
That boomerang effect is essentially what lies at the heart of Invest In Me, she says.
“When girls graduate (from high school or college) and come back to share their experiences, that’s what makes it all worth it.”