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Sonya Ulibarri of Girls Inc.: Encouraging Girl Power

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There’s no denying the fact that Sonya Ulibarri is a champion in every sense of the word, especially when that word relates to her unwavering commitment to and passion for championing, empowering and inspiring young girls to appreciate their strength, intelligence and fearlessness.

Sonya is now in her fourth year as President and CEO of Girls Inc. of Metro Denver. It’s evident that her innate ability to work both independently and as part of team, with a proactive, anticipatory and dedicated stance toward the connection she has always felt to community work, has had a profound effect both on the work she does and for the people she serves. In her role with Girls Inc., Sonya embraces the opportunity to fulfill the mission of the organization, which is “to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.”

Raised outside of Denver, Sonya noted that she has always felt the desire to do community work, but she never really knew in what form that would be and she really never saw herself doing community work as a career. “My parents instilled in me a sense of community work and were always so generous and loving to us and to others,” noted Sonya, who herself is Latina.

However, she serendipitously became a student activist while earning her BA in political science and psychology from the University of Colorado, which led her to an internship opportunity as a fundraiser. “A professor gave me a brochure about the internship that was directed toward people of color who were interested in social change,” she recalled. “Since it was a paid internship and I needed a job while in school, I applied.”

The internship, which lasted for six months, proved to be the catalyst from which Sonya would eventually springboard her career. “The name of the organization for which I worked was the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training, or GIFT,” noted Sonya, who wasted no time indicating that the whole experience “totally blew my mind and changed my life! I learned that fundraising is a critical component of social change.”

Sonya also familiarized herself with one huge aspect of fundraising that can make some people uneasy, yet is a powerful tool of movement building: asking for money. The ability to obtain such resources speaks to the long-term sustainability of the organization. By reaching out to individuals, businesses and organizations, Sonya acquired life changing skills as a fundraiser, not only from an educational standpoint but also from a personal perspective. “If we never see ourselves as fundraisers, we lose the ability to have self-determination,” she emphasized. “Once your belief in the work overcomes the fear of asking for money, you can do so much to help grow and build an organization. It is necessary to have resources to accomplish the mission of any non-profit organization.”

Her on-the-job training led her to a surprising realization about the form in which financial donations come. “While some donations certainly do come from foundations and corporations, a majority of funds raised come from the donations of middle-class individuals,” she explained. “The non-profit sector is the seventh largest sector in the United States and in 2013 it realized $335 billion in donations from the private sector, including individuals. I have learned that it’s not just wealthy individuals who give, but that whole communities give as well. We all can be philanthropists. We have to leverage our resources, and by not talking about it we are putting ourselves in a position to not do what we need to do.”

It was that grand lesson from her initial days in the fundraising arena that showed Sonya how social change can be affected in that manner, and from there her world transformed. She eventually became a professional fundraiser, first as an intern, then as a staff member of GIFT and later as its executive director; she spent a total of six years with the organization. While she had opportunities to transition to the for-profit world, it was her passion for community work that drove her choices.

After leaving her job at GIFT she assumed a position as the development director for YouthBiz, an organization committed to
inspiring young entrepreneurs, especially those of color and in low income families. After six months she was promoted to the executive director position. “I fell in love working locally with young people and people of color,” she said. “It was a lot of work and often quite challenging, as most kids don’t care about your résumé. They only want to know that you are there for the right reasons and that you will stay, listen to them, and let them lead.”

The rewards by far trumped those challenges, and from that experience Sonya acquired a sincere love of working with youth. When she eventually brought her background in fundraising and married that with her leadership roles and experience in youth development, it’s easy to see why she was appointed as CEO for Girls Inc. of Metro Denver, a role that clearly speaks to her heart.

“I get to make sure the girls we serve have access to what I did not have when I was young,” she stressed. “We help these young ladies explore their interests and develop their strengths. Our job is to expose to them to many things, encouraging self-confidence and inner strength along the way.”

Girls Inc. provides a variety of programs for girls ages 6 to 18, including after-school workshops, summer programs and courses offered during the school day. In 2015, approximately 1,800 girls will be served through outreach programs and roughly 350 will benefit from the programs at the center. Its vision is to empower young girls, encourage them to take risks, to express themselves fearlessly, to take pride in their success and to have confidence in who they are and who they can become, preparing them for work and economic independence. This is accomplished through research based programs that significantly change the world for these girls; the process enables them to become strong and empowered self advocates. Of course, this could not be done without the generous donations and support of those in the community. “The girls we serve represent a significant number of low-income families and they are often the first in their families to go to college,” said Sonya. “I feel so lucky to be here and I am passionate about the work we do. It’s sometimes difficult but it is also very joyful.”

Of great importance to Girls Inc. are the scholarships it offers girls via the Girls Inc. of Metro Denver Helen M. McLoraine Scholarship Program. “This year we are awarding a total of $55,000 in college scholarships to eight girls, and we will present these awards to them at our annual Summer Celebration Luncheon in June,” said Sonya.

When not immersing herself in her work, Sonya enjoys spending time with her husband and children, a daughter, 16, and a son, 9. She also loves travel, watching movies, cheering on her daughter at her soccer games, and experiencing some of the great restaurants Denver has
to offer.

At the end of the day, however, Sonya’s heart still beats for others.

“We are all stretched for time and resources, but we can all be philanthropists even in the little ways by supporting various campaigns, sharing our work and just being positive role models for our children,” she smiled. HLM
For more information on Girls, Inc. of Metro Denver, go online at