Two Pounds, Six Ounces
My number one role model lives each day knowing life is a gift.
Dallas Nicole was born 13 weeks prematurely weighing just two pounds, six ounces. Before she was emergency airlifted from a small hospital to the nearest state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care unit, one of the surgeons prophetically told her father: "She's a real fighter."
Annually on her birthday, the fighter returns to the ring. She visits the NICU and shares her remarkable story with fearful, tearful parents holding vigil for their own preemies.
Being a mother prematurely is almost as dangerous as being a preemie baby. In fact, the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 in developing countries is complications from early pregnancy. But when a girl attends school for seven years, she tends to marry four years later (which means pregnancy at a healthier age) and have two fewer children.
Moreover, the higher a mother's education level the better her children's health. Among the staggering facts vetted by the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative and Girl Rising, for instance, is that a girl who has been educated is later 50 percent more likely to immunize her children.
October 11 is the U.N.'s second annual International Day of the Girl. At the heart of this movement is what Girl Rising calls a simple, critical truth: Educate girls, and you will change the world.
A Pimple, a Purpose
Like her early entry into the world, Dallas discovered her passion for writing at a young age.
With a $50 gift-grant from her elementary school, she published her first children's book, There's a Huge Pimple on My Nose, which a review in the Los Angeles Times praised: "If you simply want to enjoy some remarkable writing, it would be hard to find a book more satisfying." Dallas celebrated her fourth-grade literary success by funding two grants in her own name the following year.
About one-quarter of all girls in the developing world are not in school -- and therefore do not enjoy this same opportunity to discover and share their voices.
Indeed, millions of girls face barriers to education that boys do not: early and forced marriage, domestic slavery, sex trafficking, gender violence and discrimination, school fees, as well as lack of access to healthcare and markets. Yet educating girls can break cycles of poverty in a single generation.
Twelve-year-old girls are "right on the edge" according to the Girl Effect: What happens to an adolescent girl over the next three years of her life largely sets the course for her -- and her family's -- future. This is about the age Dallas was when she wrote Pimple.
Fast forward, and what an effect this girl has had! Now 26, Dallas is a published author and award-winning playwright, has earned her Masters degree in fiction writing, taught at the university level and is a 2013-14 John Steinbeck fellow crafting a new novel.
She is also the founder of Write On! For Literacy, which empowers youth to discover confidence, self-expression and a means of connection with others through reading and writing. Over the past decade, Write On! has collected and distributed 12,325 new books to deserving youth.
Dallas additionally leads writing camps, gives school talks, personally mentors young writers, and published Dancing With the Pen: A Collection of Today's Best Youth Writing, featuring the work of 165 middle- and high-school students.
Educated Girls, Better World
Personal examples and research show that everyone benefits when girls receive quality education. At the individual level, a girl's wages can increase as much as 20 percent with each additional year of primary education she receives. And at the collective level when the total number of girls attending school in a country increases by 10 percent, GDP increases by an average of three percent.
Just as Dallas paid forward the school grant she received, women and girls reinvest 90 percent of their income into their families -- compared to 30-40 percent family reinvestment by men.
According to data from the this article, if the 1.6 million Kenyan girls who have dropped out of high school and face greater risk of becoming adolescent mothers finished their secondary education, they would earn 30 percent more income and contribute $3.2 billion to Kenya's economy each year. With the flood of entrepreneurship and innovation this access to opportunity would create, it is easy to imagine this economic growth snowballing even further.
I see what one "pimple" did for young Dallas, and I cannot help but imagine how beautiful a constellation of schoolgirl pimples would be in Kenya and beyond. Will we cultivate these brilliant minds and loving hearts, or will we shortchange them -- and ourselves -- of this gift?
While I now stand five inches taller than Dallas, a preemie who blessedly grew to be 5'10", I will always look UP to my role model and best friend.
October 11 is our day to step up and take action in honor of the countless girls and young women who, like my older sister Dallas, are changing the world one gift of a day at a time.