PEARLS was founded as a volunteer effort in 1993 by local entrepreneur and Executive Coach, Colleen Fitzgerald. The first PEARLS group was launched as an after school program for girls at Jackie Robinson Middle School in 1993. A small group of girls were committed to coming together once a week for honest conversations and to build trusting relationships. A primary focus of the group was to offer the girls, most of whom were facing the challenges of poverty and life in the central city, the opportunity to see and believe in their inherent beauty, power and potential.
It was important for girls to know that no matter what the circumstances in their lives, they had 'precious and unique gifts and talents' to share with the world. PEARLS was about giving the girls a place to express themselves, build their confidence and articulate their dreams.
As the original group was taking shape, national research was coming out about the serious challenges that girls in our country are facing and calling attention to the fact that too many communities, including Milwaukee, lacked adequate girl-focused programming. Studies showed that to be effective, girls' programming needed to be consistent, girl-only and provided in a culturally sensitive safe space. Girls needed intergenerational and emotional support to build self-efficacy, and the opportunity to have a voice in programming — all these were offered by the Jackie Robinson PEARLS group. Meanwhile, the response at Jackie Robinson was overwhelming.
From the beginning, the PEARLS process was unique, because the girls were invited to be true co-creators of all programming. In the groups, girls were expected to be the directors of the dialogue and to explore the ideas, feelings and topics that were important to them. As PEARLS moved from a single-site group to an organization, girls were a key part of the team. Additional impressive and experienced local youth workers joined the effort, including PEARLS’ current Executive Director, Gerry Howze. Together, the team began the work of creating and codifying the PEARLS experience. A small board of directors was formed and early and visionary grants from donors like the Richard and Ethel Herzfeld Foundation allowed the work to take off. By 2000, PEARLS was a full time operation and by 2002, PEARLS officially became a non-profit organization.
PEARLS developed a process for truly understanding the impact of its unique approach on the lives of the girls. Dr. Daniel Folkman of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, an expert in youth program evaluation, began working with the team to develop PEARLS distinct Leadership Compass and goal setting process. PEARLS groups were added around the city, including high school groups. PEARLS began to focus on helping girls to envision college and careers and many activities were incorporated to inspire girls to dream bigger.
In 2005 PEARLS published its unique curriculum and completed a comprehensive organizational strategic planning process. The plan incorporated input from the girls, staff, board and community leaders.