Keler Mitchell is a Lafayette native. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1991.
She has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 17 years, leading several teams at United Way of Acadiana, with her last role as the vice president of Early Head Start. Mitchell now works at Lafayette Habitat for Humanity as the chief operating officer.
She is the past president of the Louisiana Association of Volunteer Center Directors, past president of the Social Service Agency Network, a Charter Board Member of the 705 and a Diamond Life member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. for 29 years.
In 2019, Mitchell started Steel Magnolias of Louisiana, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit youth initiative that educates, empowers and engages girls ages 8 to 15 years old.
She is married to Daryl Mitchell and is the mother of two sons, Greg Williams Jr. and Kameron Williams.
What is Steel Magnolias?
Overall, our goal as a nonprofit is to empower girls, ages 8 to 15, and give them the tools to be successful. A lot of the girls we work with are from low-income communities and rarely have resources to participate in the kind of activities we organize for them. If you look at the stats for girls in Louisiana — the teen dropout rate, the number of girls in poverty — they often are dealing with all sorts of other issues, including self image. We’re trying to give girls a safe space to have a conversation.
I’ve shared the vision for Magnolias with other women who have gotten involved. I like to call them “the unusual suspects.” We work together not only to serve these girls, but there are times that the women leaders learn from these experiences also. For example, we did a session several years ago on vision boards — trying to inspire these girls to imagine a different future and to build them up in a way to see they are capable of succeeding. One of the leaders still has the vision board she made that day and refers to it often. We want these girls to understand that where they come from doesn’t matter. They can make a difference. It’s the little things we’re trying to teach them.
What kind of little things?
Like how we present ourselves. Presentation matters. The way we communicate matters. I say “little things,” but those tools, those social skills, matter. Having the ability to effectively communicate makes a difference. If we can instill some of those skills in our girls at a young age, they begin to see themselves and their interactions with others differently.
We also teach them online safety. Even at 8, the girls have phones. Yes, it’s a great tool, but there’s a way to utilize it.
We talk about bullying. How do you deal with those issues — whether you are being bullied or you are the bully? We want the girls to realize the impact those choices have on their ability to be successful.
On the other hand, it’s important to me, personally, that Magnolias is still a fun place. We look for ways to continue to incorporate fun activities, creative ways to keep them excited about being a part of the group. One of our adult members wants to take them to a local place with horses — to be in that place exposes them to something different. They’ve not had that kind of opportunity before.
We take our girls to the theater. Moms and daughters were able to enjoy that experience. We’re working to create spaces for those mother/daughter relationships to continue to blossom. For many of the girls, it’s the first time for them to be able to go to something like that.
We recognize that we can’t address every issue. But when we show up for our girls, it makes a difference. Many of the moms work multiple jobs. We tell the girls that if there’s something you have at school — a performance or a game — let us know, and we show up. It’s important to show them that if someone says we will, that we do.
We bring in expert speakers and give them the knowledge they need, not that the info they get from their friends at school but the real information. I’m surprised sometimes at what the girls say.
What do the girls say that surprise you?
One of the girls said, “We don’t really want our moms to let us do whatever we say we want to do. Moms are supposed to set boundaries.”
It’s up to us, the moms, to decide if we’re able to do that or not. We have to ask, “Do we want to be their friends or their parents?” My hope is that the Steel Magnolias leadership can fill the gap when parents just can’t be available.
How do girls get involved?
We did an informational meeting that if moms can get them to us on time, we’ll take care of the rest. The moms can’t be all the places, but once a month, if you get her to us, we’ll take care of the rest. We’ll feed them breakfast. She’s in a safe space with us. When she’s done, the goal is for her to be in a better place than she was when you dropped her off — and we’ll get her home if we need to do so.
We’re recruiting girls right now. We would like to have 25 girls involved. It’s not about the numbers. We will serve the girls we have. Those who want to be involved should visit our website, www.steelmagnoliasofla.org. A 501(c)(3) organization, it was started in 2019. When COVID hit, we pulled back. We continued to do some things in that time frame, but we are back at it again.
The group meets once a month from 10 a.m. to noon. We give our moms the dates in advance and do what we can to schedule service events in advance.
What are some of your goals for the group?
How can we think of things that we as adults have the luxury of learning over time — to manage stress, to set goals? For some women, it’s taken a while to figure it out. My goal is for the Magnolias that one or two of these things will stick with them. They’re all coming to us from different places.
This year, our theme is “She’s a girl boss.” We’re asking what they want to be when they grow up. Then, we’re bringing in women who do that. We are trying to lift up the girls in our community who are excelling in the arts. We’re trying to build up the next generation of women.
Why did you do this?
After my dad passed, I went through a process internally of understanding my purpose, knowing I had a lot of folks who poured good into me. I was fortunate to have good teachers. All of those people were instrumental in me becoming who I am. I wanted to do something like that for girls from neighborhoods where most people don’t think you can. I wanted to make a difference. I realized it takes other people. I wanted to bring like-minded women together to make this happen. I believe it matters for this generation of girls, that we lift them up. It doesn’t just happen. I’m lucky enough to have other women who are willing to give of their time, treasures and talent and give to this organization.
Why did you name it Steel Magnolias?
“Steel Magnolias” is one of my favorite movies. It’s about women coming together and supporting each other through difficult times, and they laugh. I’ve watched it many times, but there’s a lesson in it each time I watch it — people coming together to help each other.
What have you learned from the experience?
I’ve learned that there are people in my community who care about the girls we work with. There are people who are willing to share their gifts and talents to make a difference. It’s about us extending an invitation to them. I appreciate that. When you have an idea and then you invite other people in and they want to be a part of that — it’s heartening.
People want the next generation of young people to be successful. That has been a beautiful thing for me, personally. Also, that we sometimes think of this generation and whatever group they fall in, that we see from media and sometimes the statistics that don’t always do them justice. Month after month in relationships with these girls, we can see beyond that. We share that information with them, but I want them to understand that’s not who we are.
If someone wants more info?
We have an informational session scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Oct. 29 at the Lafayette Public Library’s downtown branch, in the second-floor meeting room. Also, people can contact us at steelmagnoliasofla.org.
If someone in another community wants to do something similar, we welcome their questions. I’m more than happy to share our journey. I believe it’s very duplicatable for other places. We would love to help others make a positive difference in their communities.