Giving Back: An Inside Perspective On Being A Community Builder With Dre Thomas
Despite the turbulent x ever-changing world around us, moments of generosity can still impact others in ways that will long outlast the moment. As we aim to give back x support those around us, we look to those who inspire us to create a difference in our own communities. We had the pleasure of chatting with entrepreneur Dre Thomas to learn more about her story of founding the non-profit organization that is near x dear to her heart. Smile On Me is a safe space for young women in the NYC area as they navigate the often awkward x clumsy time of puberty, and centers around providing them with fundamental resources, information, and products as they grow. Tune in below to learn more about Dre x the impactful work that she is doing in her community. . .
Aisle 9: Dre, we are so happy to have you here with us. Tell us a little bit about yourself + what steps led you to where you are today?
Dre Thomas: I was born and raised in southern California, and moved to New York in 2011. All my life, or from what I can remember, I’ve had a heart to give back and help others. I remember in elementary school I had the idea to organize a canned-food drive to help those in need. Honestly, I’m not sure why I’m wired this way, but it is one of my favorite aspects about myself. A pivotal moment in my life was when I came of age + experienced puberty. It was an awkward time, of course, but it was also very lonely. I didn’t really understand what was going on with my body x I was too embarrassed to talk about it. As I grew older, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who had this very experience; not only going through puberty, but feeling alone + inadequately prepared for this new season of life — that was a huge catalyst that motivated my non-profit work.
A9: What was the spark that inspired your non-profit, Smile On Me? We would love a little backstory.
DT: When I was a teen in high school, I had the idea to give girls hygiene products in my apartment complex, but I lacked the confidence and resources to implement it. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I felt invigorated to bring these ideas to life. That’s what the city does, it pushes you to stretch beyond yourself + take positive risks. After working in various low-income communities throughout the five boroughs, I finally had the experience, confidence, and resources to support girls in these communities. In the beginning, I asked friends x family to donate a few dollars so I could buy hygiene products for the girls at the school I was working at. From there, I’d host little happy hours after work, encouraging friends and coworkers to bring something to donate [deodorant, pads, toothbrushes, etc.]. Finally, in 2017 I launched Smile On Me. We’ve been going strong for five years now x I’m so in awe of the impact we’ve been able to make. The best is yet to come!
A9: What are some of the challenges that arise with non-profit work? Any learnings you’d like to share?
DT: When I first started, I was really taken aback by the lack of interest I received from others. I poured my whole heart + soul into Smile On Me, and expected everyone to have the same feelings towards what I was doing. To be honest, I became very bitter in the beginning. I couldn’t resolve why I was the only one, or one of the few, who cared about this issue. That’s the thing about passion projects x entrepreneurship; if you’re not willing to be the only one who cares deeply about solving an issue, it’s really not worth doing. Starting + maintaining anything is a lot of work, especially in the non-profit sector.
A9: We think it is amazing that through Smile On Me, you are able to provide these girls with hygiene products. How have you seen this impact their lives, especially as they transition into puberty?
DT: I think one of the greatest things that’s come out of providing girls with these essential products is seeing how comfortable they’ve become with discussing these topics. Having conversations about our bodies can be awkward, especially when you’re confronted with something out of the ordinary. I remember when I first started giving girls simple things like deodorant, there was a sense of shame [whether because they didn’t have it at home, or didn’t know how to properly use it]. My goal was to create a space where girls felt comfortable in the unknown. I wanted girls to feel safe asking questions or sharing how they were feeling about their ever-changing bodies. I think often times when girls are going through puberty, they feel embarrassed or alone, and because of that embarrassment, they tend to ignore it or seldom ask for help. Giving girls these products normalizes puberty — it’s like saying, “hey I went through this too.”
A9: We love the concept behind the “Tiny Talks” series. How has this virtual space allowed girls to continue to connect?
DT: Tiny Talks was born out of loneliness, to be honest. A lot of people experienced loneliness for the first time during the pandemic, especially young people. Their social lives were immediately stripped from them + they couldn’t acclimate to the “new normal” as easily. After speaking with a few of the girls in the Smile On Me program, it become clear how powerful community was for them x for all of us. So I began offering “office hours” during the pandemic to invite girls to join a zoom call once a week, just to chat about anything. I remember one of our first group calls happened right after George Floyd was murdered. The girls were crying, sharing their frustrations, asking questions, and were able to be there for one another; it was a beautiful x heartwarming moment that I’m so honored to have been apart of. I didn’t want the conversations to end, and I also wanted it to be productive + give girls the tools to navigate through these heavy topics. I invited a few women who I admire to join in x help guide these conversations: women in the mental health or social justice space, body positivity + menstruation advocates, and self-care x breast health champions. Tiny Talks will continue to thrive whether it’s digital or IRL. In fact, we’re hosting our first ever IRL Tiny Talk during our Summer Camp in a few weeks!
A9: What do you enjoy most about working with young women? What is the most rewarding part?
DT: What’s most rewarding is seeing these girls connect with one another. We’ve built a really vibrant community over the past few years x it’s been such a joy seeing them maintain it. Many of the girls came into the program without knowing anyone; to see them create strong connections with one another, reposting each others pictures on Instagram, or even hanging out in person has been such a thrill to watch. I love seeing them want to get more involved + come up with ways to help other girls. They’ve had ideas like creating a pen-pal initiative, [which we did during the pandemic], hosting in-school hygiene drives to continue providing products for more girls, challenging each other to invite their friends to join, and so much more.
A9: You’ve shared before about your passion for getting outdoors. What has that looked like for you personally + within your non-profit work?
DT: I think it’s vital for us to experience the great outdoors! That notion became more real for me during the pandemic. Living in a big city like New York, I don’t often get the opportunity to get out x experience nature [sometimes the concrete jungle just doesn’t cut it] – that’s the same for a lot of these girls. I think there’s so much healing that can be done in the wild, being amongst the trees + listening to the natural humming of nature, without the constant sounds of a big city. Often times when I feel anxious or even down x depressed, I find going for a walk in a park or a quiet tree-lined street makes an overwhelming positive impact on my state of being.
A9: As we touch on spending time outdoors, we know Summer Camp is just around the corner! Please share a bit with us about what spurred the concept, how readers can support the campaign, and what campers can expect.
DT: There are so many studies that show how getting outside can improve our overall health. For youth in low-income households with higher COVID-19 mental health risks x fewer opportunities to regulate their stress, access to the unique benefits of experiencing the outdoors, specifically through camp, can be instrumental in mitigating the impact of the pandemic. With over 60% of Smile On Me participants never attending an overnight camp [mainly because of cost], it was a no brainer to offer it for free. We put together a crowdfunding campaign last year through iFundWomen to do exactly that. I’m so in awe of how our community showed up to support us in bringing this camp to life x I can’t wait for girls to experience it.
A9: As someone who is so active in their community, how have you created balance between investing in the lives of others + putting that same energy into yourself?
DT: Investing in others gives me energy + brings happiness to my life. I find when I’m not doing that, I feel depleted x become disconnected from myself. There’s a Bible verse that I live by, “A generous person will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.” This rings true in my everyday life. Whether I’m organizing hygiene drives, creating safe spaces for young women, or simply being there for a friend – serving others uplifts my spirit in a way nothing else does.
A9: What’s next on the horizon for you + your non-profit work?
DT: My mom always used to tell me to, “Forget the former things and not dwell on the past, for there is always a new day of the horizon.” There is so much in store for Smile On Me – I truly believe we’re just getting started. I have notebooks filled with ideas x things I’d like to bring forth for this organization + the girls we get to serve. My biggest goal at the moment is for Smile On Me to be in a position to host this Summer Camp annually + free for girls to attend. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it, but I have hope for the future!
About Dre: Dre Thomas is a proud new mom, aunt, entrepreneur, and active community builder. An advocate for giving back, Dre is the founder of Smile On Me, a public speaker, and has shared her story on podcasts like Jenna Kutcher’s The Goal Digger, and Reshma Saujani’s Brave, Not Perfect. She’s listed as one of Bumble’s 100 inspiring New Yorkers, Bustle’s Rule Breakers, 92Y’s Extraordinary Women, and Aerie’s #AerieReal Role Models. Though born and raised in southern California, Dre is currently flourishing in New York.
*The Smile On Me community is dedicated to celebrating, uplifting, and championing young women to live a safe + healthy life, while advocating for girls in under-resourced communities. We’d love to invite you to join in on this journey with us. Click here to support this organization today as they continue their mission of shifting the culture of girlhood around the world.