ALBANY — When I first met Carla Hawkins, we were both at the same table at a fancy black-tie event at the Albany Civic Center.
Carla was wearing a nice, blue dress and was followed by a posse of young girls, all in middle or high school, and the group sat down at the table with my husband and me.
Just moments after dinner was served, one of the young girls accidentally knocked over a glass of sweet tea, and the spilled drink got all over Carla’s fancy blue dress.
What happened next made me realize that Carla really meant what she said when she later told me about her nonprofit, Queens-R-Us.
Hawkins simply took a deep breath and said, “It’s okay, mistakes happen.” She was more focused on reassuring the nervous young girl than even trying to dry the stain on her lap, and to me, that showed how genuine she is about her mission of empowering girls.
In a tough moment, when presented with a true test of character, Hawkins did not freak out. She didn’t raise her voice, and you would have been hard pressed to see even a hint of annoyance on her face.
I knew I had to do a story on her organization, which as she told me over dinner, she had just quit a job she had had for 10 years to focus on full time.
And while that night that I first met Hawkins was the first official Queens-R-Us outing or event, just the next day, they had a mother-daughter day at Flint RiverQuarium, and in just over a week, the first ever Queens-R-Us summer program will begin it’s eight-weeklong session.
Hawkins said the idea behind the organization really started all the way back in 2010 when she won the Miss Black Georgia USA beauty pageant. The title gave her a platform that she used to speak to groups about healthy living and organ donation for LifeLink of Georgia, the nonprofit she worked with for 10 years before leaving to focus on Queens-R-Us.
“I would have a lot of kids, a lot of girls, come up to me and ask for an autograph or pictures, and they would tell me they could never be a queen, they would never win a contest,” Hawkins said. “The dream, it came after leaving a particular school, (was) wanting to create an atmosphere and a space where girls never have to feel they have to fight or compete for a crown.
“They can actually believe they can be a queen, that they are a queen. From 2010, up until today, it’s just been putting pieces of the puzzle together for what I wanted to incorporate.”
While the organization was something she had been working on for nearly 10 years at the end of 2018, she was motivated to take a leap of faith and focus on Queens-R-Us when Girls Inc. of Albany was no longer operational.
“Girls Inc., when they closed, that was a big push,” Hawkins said. “My heart was more at home here in Albany, in my community and wanting to give back. When you watch the news and hear the stories of kids committing suicide and girls in middle and even elementary school getting pregnant, when you hear things like that, you can’t complain if you’re not going to do something about it. I just figured I can do something about it.”
Hawkins said that through her own experience of being a pageant queen, she also knows that someone can seem happy and appear to be doing just fine while dealing with many issues on the inside.
“Aside from providing arts and crafts and music, dance, tutoring and field trips,” Hawkins said, “that’s all great and it’s important for building a well-rounded person. But sometimes, we have to dig a little deeper.
“I had someone look beneath the surface. I won pageants, and I was in talent shows. I traveled across the country. I was in movies, and everybody thought I was just someone to be admired and replicated. They had no idea what I was dealing with.”
Hawkins said she hopes that she and her team of volunteers can be that person who looks underneath the surface for many girls in the community, starting with the summer program.
During my official interview with Hawkins, we sat in a large annex building of her church, and I immediately noticed all the decor and the clear thought put into the layout: the color scheme, the wall hangings with inspirational quotes, the flower wall where girls would take their before and after pictures from the start of the program to the end.
She explained that there would be arts and crafts, dance, an educational power hour with certified teachers, two full meals and a snack, a STEM program for interested girls, information about healthy living, demonstrations on growing your own food and raised-bed gardening, field trips to the movies, the Big Apple Circus, the Albany Civil Rights Museum, the Flint RiverQuarium, drama classes, classes on media and broadcasting, and the all-important empowerment sessions.
My head was spinning a little by the end of the conversation, and with anyone else, I might shake my head and be a little skeptical that it could all be done. But not so with Hawkins. I could see arts and crafts supplies in the back; she showed me where the dance classes would be held when we walked into the room; we sat at the long table where meals would be served, and she already had certified teachers and a professor at ASU lined up for all of the classes.
Apart from all that, it was easy to see she is a person who simply gets stuff done. She does not wait around for someone else to do something, she just does it, without hesitation or complaint.
The camp will begin on May 28 and last until July 19 from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. every weekday. Certainly the estimated 60 girls there, ranging in ages from 5 to 18, will have a blast. But they will also be educated and empowered.
“I just hope that when they leave, they’re stronger, they’re more confident,” Hawkins said. “They’re more aware of their worth, and then when I say worth, knowing that they’re worthy of respect from anyone.”
With various speakers sharing information about their careers, their personal journeys and successes and failures, she said she hopes that they are able to find something they can relate to.
“It’s helping them to find their purpose,” Hawkins said.
After the summer session ends, Hawkins and her team of volunteers will take only a short break before school starts in Dougherty County and they begin their after-school program, which will offer the same empowerment and education.
For information about how to get your daughter involved or donating or volunteering with Queens-R-Us, contact Hawkins at (229) 449-1912 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The cost for the summer program is $50 a week, and the cost for the after-school program beginning in August in $25 a week.
Hawkins said she has always had a connection to working with children and knows that the power of love and respect is a powerful thing.
“Love is everything,” she said. “When a kid knows that you love them and that you are there for them and that’s genuine, they feel and they connect to that. They respect you because you respect them, and a lot can happen. Amazing things can happen. I’ve seen that happen.”
Albany just may see that happen as well with the impact of Hawkins’ programs.