At 14, most girls are worried about getting that cute boy in English class to notice them, having to be dropped off at the movies by their moms, and making sure they get front row tickets to the Taylor Swift concert. Few are aware that there are girls their own age and in their own communities who struggle simply to obtain nice clothes to wear. Even fewer take this realization far enough to make a profound difference in the cause.
University of Pennsylvania student Allyson Ahlstrom is one of those few. At just 14 years old, she combined her love for fashion with her desire to help those in need and founded the non-profit organization Threads for Teens, which aspires to provide less-fortunate girls the opportunities to grow their self-confidence through the gift of clothing. The organization’s mission statement stresses that, “No mountain is too high, no forests are too thick, no oceans to vast from giving girls everywhere the opportunity to succeed.”
To date, Threads for Teens has served 1,600 girls. Allyson is a prime example of how a girl of any age can make a lasting difference in her community simply through hard work and a kind heart.
What is Threads for Teens and what inspired you start it?
Allyson Ahlstrom: Threads for Teens is a non-profit clothing boutique for girls in foster care and group homes that I founded in January 2010. Since then, Threads for Teens has given over 600 girls a brand-new outfit at the storefront location. In the summers of 2013 and 2014, I took Threads for Teens on tour! To accomplish this, a semi-truck was outfitted to be a mobile boutique. Through this venture, 2,000 girls across the country received a brand-new outfit, with the help of sponsors like rue21 and Keds!
For as long as I can remember, my parents have encouraged my sister and me to volunteer and give back to our community. When Hurricane Katrina hit, my sister and I made toiletry care packages to send to victims. I donated 11 inches of my hair to Locks of Love when I was 12, and donated all of my birthday gifts one year to a foster home. When I was 14, a freshman in high school, my parents gave me a book called Generation Change for Christmas. The book was about different service projects teenagers across the country led, some even as young as 12! It was at that point that I decided to do something myself. I came up with the idea for a one-time clothing drive that has since grown into a national non-profit organization.
How has your business evolved since you first founded it?
AA: When I first came up with the idea for Threads for Teens, I wanted to hold a one-time clothing drive to give 10 girls a new outfit. Since then, Threads for Teens has evolved into a national non-profit organization. We have a boutique that is open year-round in Santa Rosa, CA. We tour the country every summer in a mobile boutique to give more girls a new outfit!
Furthermore, we are working to open satellite locations, and have five opening this fall across the country and in London! I’ve also gotten tremendous support not only from individuals, but also from a number of organizations. For instance, this year, clothing retailer rue21 is sponsoring the tour as part of its rueGivesBack philanthropy program.
What has been one of your most memorable experiences while working on Threads for Teens?
AA: “Last year when I came to the Threads for Teens tour stop in Detroit, I decided that I was going to break the cycle of poverty and go to college. I said to myself, if a 14 year-old girl can make such a large impact on my life and girls’ lives across the country, I can go to college. This past year, I worked hard on applications, and received a full-ride to the University of Alabama” – Alice, 18, Detroit, MI
Hearing this girl say these words to me was incredibly humbling and left a huge impact. Stories like these make me want to continue growing the organization.
What has been one of your biggest challenges in starting and running your own nonprofit and how did you overcome it?
AA: Before I founded Threads for Teens, I thought I was too young to do a service project. I thought I needed to wait until I was a senior in high school. Really getting over this mental barrier was huge. Once I did, everything went really well because I actually used age to my advantage. Like, look at me, I am young and you should donate!
Age is a huge factor in my success, which I find funny looking back that I thought it would hurt me. Sometimes, I face condescending people who do not take me seriously, like the other day I took a phone call with someone like that, but ultimately, I realize that I am making a difference and that’s all that matters. Not whether someone thinks I am old enough, because I have a track record to prove myself.
How have you learned to balance school, a social life, and a business?
AA: I honestly do not know! People ask this question all the time. Threads for Teens is so much a part of my life, like eating and sleeping, that I cannot not do it. Like anything that you do a lot, slowly it just becomes a component of your identity. I do have to say that my life is never boring or slow, I constantly have something to do, whether it be Threads for Teens, school, hobbies, etc. I would not have it any other way!
What are your hopes for your future as well as the future of Threads for Teens?
AA: My goal is to grow Threads for Teens into a global girl empowerment organization. Right now there are a lot of conversations about females in the workplace, education, etc. I want to extend that focus to teen girls. To make this a reality, I plan to open boutiques in all 50 states and around the world. Furthermore, we will develop girl empowerment curriculum, build a scholarship endowment, and host a girls’ summit. These are definitely long-term goals, but everything I do with the organization is in preparation for these ideas!
For myself personally, I want to continue to inspire all people, not just teenage girls. I do not know where I will end up after college, but hope to be able to always be in a career where a positive impact is made.
Why is it important to encourage young girls to aspire to positions of leadership?
AA: Girls have powerful voices! Use your voice. Look up to other women who have risen in their careers and see that you too can do that! Girls need a larger voice in many sectors, such as the government and in C-level positions. We need to be accurately represented. That starts with encouraging girls and enforcing to them that they can do anything.
Do you have any advice for other young girls looking to make a difference in their communities?
AA: Remember, no one is too young or too old to make a difference. If you want to do something, my best advice is to just go out there and do it! Learn along the way and you will surprise yourself with what you accomplish. Absolutely do not doubt anything! People will surprise you with how much they want to help out. I have learned that many people want to give back to their communities, but do not know how or have the time. It is also important to realize that volunteering for an hour a week (four hours a month), can have a profound impact on an organization. Making an impact does not have to be on a gigantic scale. I am huge believer that if everyone does a little, then no one has to do a lot!
Secondly, READ! Read about other powerful and inspiring women. Recently, I read Giuliana Rancic’s memoir and Gretchen Carlson’s memoir. Both women have accomplished incredible feats in their careers, but continue to stay humble and strive to be better. Powerful business books I would recommend are #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso and The Glitter Plan. I cannot stress how important it is to read about other people’s success. You will learn so much and be able to implement in whatever you want to do.
Lastly, Threads for Teens is going on tour this fall! Make sure to stay up-to-date with everything we are doing.
Cover image courtesy of Allyson Ahlstrom.