Bria Toussaint’s father was slain the summer before her sophomore year at Freedom High School in South Riding. Not long afterward, Royal Phillips witnessed her father verbally and physically assaulting her sister.

Severe family problems such as these might have sent some teenage girls into a spiral of substance abuse, pregnancy or eating disorders. Instead, the high school classmates formed a bond that took them in a positive direction. Crediting the strong women in their lives who served as role models with helping them through difficult times, Toussaint and Phillips realized that they, in turn, could serve as role models for young girls. This was the beginning of GRL-PWR.

The two friends started GRL-PWR as an after-school program to help girls build self-esteem. They developed a curriculum and launched the program at Liberty Elementary School in 2010, stressing goal-setting, friendship and community service.

“It really all comes back to self-esteem,” Toussaint said. “If you set a goal and achieve the goal, it increases your self- esteem. And we talk a lot about friendship, just keeping things nice between friends.”

They ran the program for two years before taking it to another level, first as a spring-break camp and now as a summer camp. They offer three four-day summer camps for girls ages 7 to 11 through the Loudoun County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.

Toussaint and Phillips, now both 18, bonded early in their friendship, partly because of the common hardships they endured. Both had been born to teenage mothers, and their parents had split up long ago. Toussaint’s father had been in and out of prison before he was shot multiple times and killed in a holdup. Phillips’s father went to jail after assaulting her sister.

Both are quick to credit female family members, including their mothers, grandmothers and aunts, with showing them how to be strong in the face of adversity.

“My mom worked really hard, and we were kind of poor for a long time,” Toussaint said. “She definitely had a lot of things that could have set her back, but she still stayed strong and kept me positive.”

Phillips said that when her parents separated, her mother was left alone with two children and no money.

“She was able to graduate from college and get her master’s while raising two kids on her own,” Phillips said. “It just showed me, there’s no excuse for me [not to succeed], because she dealt with a lot more and was able to overcome.”

On June 10, Toussaint and Phillips received diplomas from Freedom High School. At 9 the next morning, they launched their first day of summer camp with 12 excited girls.

“We couldn’t go to all-night grad,” Toussaint said with a laugh. “I guess we didn’t plan that very well.”

In a lesson on goal-setting, they instructed the girls to write down a personal goal for the summer, such as “I will learn to swim,” “I will read 25 books” and “I will keep my room clean.” The girls then wrote a list of manageable steps to take toward their goals.

Later that day, the girls painted their goal on the side of flowerpots. With a flower growing in her pot, each girl would be reminded to grow closer to her goal over the summer.

“We’re building these tools within them,” Toussaint said. “We’re also trying to build role models, so that one day, they will be the positive female role models.”

In April, Toussaint and Phillips won the county’s annual Step-Up Loudoun competition, which offers incentives for middle school and high school students to find innovative solutions to problems they see around them. The award came with a $1,000 prize — and some unexpected recognition.

“People were calling the school trying to contact Bria and I, asking how their kids could join GRL-PWR or how they could become GRL-PWR instructors,” Phillips said. “The secretary called us and she was like, ‘Okay, what is this girl power thing? I have parents calling me and I have no idea what to say.’”

In the fall, Toussaint and Phillips will attend Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta. They plan to take GRL-PWR with them to Atlanta, and hope to see it eventually grow into a national program.

“This is what we want to do with our lives,” Toussaint said.

A GRL-PWR summer camp is scheduled for July 23 to 26 at the Dulles South Multipurpose Center in South Riding. For information, go to