Chairman Bill Powers, a retired banker, told me he was one of the project founders 19 years ago and beamed with joy as he rattled off impressive statistics of its impact and penetration, saying:

  • “We started with five girls and three mentors, and now have 750 girls and 200 volunteers.”
  • “We have had 4,200 Ophelia girls go through the program and we have a 100 percent graduation rate.”
  • “We are the only external program allowed in our schools and we’re in 14 schools in all three school districts — with only 10 schools left to reach.

Board member John Shimer declared, “The Ophelia Project is not anything anyone can blow out. It is a fire in this community.”

Ophelia Project Chairman Bill Powers displays his Angel
Ophelia Project Chairman Bill Powers displays his Angel on Earth Award for unselfish sacrifice and human service. The butterfly over his shoulder represents the missive of encouraging young girls to use their wings to take flight. Vice Chairwoman Gale Hackshaw (not pictured) also received an Angel on Earth Award. (Photo: Submitted)
Tales and tears

After a welcome address by president Susan Francis, the ambassadors openly shared powerful personal stories and unabashedly displayed raw emotion that had the guests alternately enthralled, amazed, amused and tearful.

“Nobody knew what I was going through at home,” said Yanelli Zamora, a fourth-year participant. “I fell in love with my mentors and my Ophelia sisters and we became a sisterhood.”

Jennifer Rocha, an Indio High School senior, said her past life included backbreaking field work in a hunchback position for eight-hour days, but she is now perusing a career as an FBI agent, majoring in sociology, law and society.

Kimberly Cazarez used to be clinically depressed but now she is expressing her artistic abilities and masterminded the “I’m a beautiful Ophelia Girl” logo design. She also presented statues of appreciation to local artists who worked on this year’s art project, “Egg-straordinary” — artistically painted eggs in baskets on each table, more than 700 in all.

La Quinta High School recently joined the Ophelia Project, where Rebecca Henein interprets its goal as “Helping girls become beautiful women ready to take on the world.” Her goal? To major in biology at UC San Diego and become a neurologist.

One of the most emotional testimonials was Ophelia Project alumna Vanessa Shelly, who said her father didn’t want his firstborn to be a daughter and so she was raised by her mother and stepfather. At 7, Vanessa wanted a relationship with her father, so her mother secured a mandated counseling order from court between the father and daughter. Vanessa’s father missed all but three appointments which he only attended for a short period of time. This made her want to become a psychiatrist, and she credits the Ophelia Project for helping her graduate in the top 20 at Shadow Hills High School. “Through this program, I have gone from being a caterpillar to a butterfly ready to spread her wings,” said Vanessa. She is a second-year scholarship student at College of the Desert.

Nathalia Casillas, an Indio High School senior, said the Ophelia Project helped her through both being cyberbullied and grief-stricken from deaths of those close to her.

Ophelia’s mentorship program began here in 1998, where it has not only flourished but its Palm Desert office became the national Ophelia Project headquarters in 2013. Today, it is the only chapter out of 16 to have survived rough economic times.