The 2014 Toyota Everyday Heroes were back on stage Thursday to be recognized for their great contributions to women and girls -- and this time they were given $10,000 apiece for their respective organizations. Smiling faces turned to shocked faces, and tears were basically guaranteed.
This year's recipients are: Monica Gonzalez of Gonzo Soccer, a not-for-profit soccer and leadership academy; Claire Smallwood of SheJumps, a nonprofit aimed at increasing female participation in outdoor activities; and Dr. Kimberly Clay, the founder and executive director of Play Like A Girl, a resource aimed to promote health and wellness through the promotion of physical activity.
I sat down with these three remarkable women to ask about their inspirations, challenges and what it means to be named a Toyota Everyday Hero.
What inspires you?
Clay: What inspired me to start Play Like A Girl was my own personal struggle with weight, having grown up in rural Mississippi where there were no sports for girls. There was band and academics, which is why I took the academic route on to double Masters and a Ph.D. For me, I didn't want other girls to suffer what I suffered as a little girl. If we can catch them earlier we can develop the lifelong commitment to physical activity that girls need, which is the piece that I lack in my life, not having it as a little girl.
Gonzalez: Watching somebody overcome a personal matter or overcome themselves, being vulnerable in front of others and then overcoming it. Seeing people work together to let down the barriers created by fear or insecurity and then overcome it because they have the strength to let those barriers down. Seeing those stories is what inspires me.
Smallwood: When we first started SheJumps, what was really inspiring to me was helping people realize that you can always start from the beginning, no matter how old you are.
What has been your most significant accomplishment?
Clay: Making it 10 years with no paid staff. I'm a staff of one and we take our program all across the globe to South Africa and Honduras. To do that with less than $120,000 annual revenue and a staff of one and some bold women volunteers -- to have done it for 10 years and me still be standing, and my marriage still being intact (laughs), that for me is a huge, huge accomplishment.
Gonzalez: What's made me more proud than anything else is seeing the girls go to college. We've had every girl from our first generation get to college, every single one. All but one have scholarships. One is playing soccer, the rest are academic, but that's our final goal is to get their education and just utilize soccer. We also have one girl each representing the United States, Columbian and Mexican youth National Team, which isn't our goal but it's really cool.
Smallwood: Personally, in the last two years, allowing myself to stop thinking of SheJumps as a passion project and to start really owning it as my calling and my career. Just knowing that I have a passion for it, and that's enough to make it legit.
What has been your greatest setback, and what have you learned from it?
Clay: When it comes to funding that I know we deserve, losing out to all the big brands and organizations, the names that are known. ... When you're in the thick of it at the grassroots level, no one knows your name. This was so reaffirming, to be named a Toyota Everyday Hero, because someone finally knows my name.
Gonzalez: My biggest lesson is how much energy it takes. I've trained every day for the Olympics and World Cup and I've never had an exhausted breakdown like I've had with this. I hit a wall and physically was not well and what I've learned from that is that I'm not the only one. The more I've shared that with people in the business the more I realize that it's happened to almost everybody.
Smallwood: Listening to people saying, "You can't do that," "That's not a good idea," or, "There's so many other organizations out there for women, why do you need something new?" Those naysayers not understanding the breadth of what we're trying to do, which is even if someone never participates in a SheJumps program, we're trying to build a vision for a larger community around the world.
What does being an Everyday Hero mean to you?
Clay: The validation is so critical. That notion to want to quit because you feel like you're working in the dark, one set of hands alone because you don't have the funding or support or whatever. The day that I got the email I literally cried the ugly cry. It's the validation I've been seeking for 10 years for someone just to know my name, just to know that we do what we do, that it's valuable work, it's meaningful work and it's making a difference in the lives of girls, so that they don't live the life that I continue to struggle with obesity.
Gonzalez: I still don't feel like I did any of this. I did one clinic and the owner of the indoor place said "The girls' moms are asking for more." It was like a demand so I just showed up. I had just been cut from my pro league so my career had just ended. So these girls actually saved me from falling into that pit of losing my identity. I just said, "OK, my career has ended but here's 25 more." It's just taken off and this is another step in the way. I'm extremely grateful.
Smallwood: When you have a passion about something that's something everyone can relate to, 'cause everyone has a passion. So it's just about standing up and saying, "If I can do this, you can do this, too."
How do you see yourself making an impact in the coming year?
Clay: I think relationship is the most important thing. Now you know my name, let's build a relationship that will benefit the girls we serve. Let's expand the reach of sports for girls, especially low income and minority girls.
Gonzalez: Our next step is to start doing exchange programs, sending the girls to Columbia and Mexico and the United States. Taking them to play so some of them that are at a higher level can get noticed and get college scholarships. We want to continue to do English classes in Mexico and Latin America, 'cause they're not going to any college in the United States without English. We've been fortunate to partner with the U.S. Embassies who have that same mission and have English programs.
Smallwood: I just hope that there are so many more women that are able to see how valuable the outdoors are for what they can do in their lives, both physically and health-wise, but also mentally in empowering them to really reach out and grab whatever they want in life. I hope this gives us the visibility to really help more women stand up and take that for themselves, as well.