By Clay Wilson
In March of 2001, Karen Nichols lost her job in some of the early layoffs that signaled the current economic slump.
She would go on to lose her life savings, her house and her car.
But Nichols never lost her sense of purpose.
"You can always get those things back," said the 45-year-old Stockbridge resident, "but finding your true purpose, you can't put a price on that."
Nichols has spent the past two years developing Chosen Heirs, Inc., a faith-based, non-profit organization focusing on developing leadership and life skills in girls ages 9 to 17. Participants include youths from Henry, Clayton, Rockdale and DeKalb counties.
With its second annual Fundraiser Luncheon and Silent Auction coming up, the young entity is earning praise from some well-known names.
"I am pleased to recognize Chosen Heirs for the countless contributions this organization has made to the metro Atlanta area in just a few short years of operation," says a letter from Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox to Nichols.
Nichols also received letters from U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga.; Ga., Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and U.S. Congressman David Scott, D-Ga. for the luncheon.
"It's really about self-esteem and about (participants) feeling good about themselves and knowing that everyone has a purpose in life," Nichols said of the Chosen Heirs program.
She said she got the idea for the group the month after she was laid off and was watching an Oprah Winfrey Show feature called the "Use Your Life Awards." She said she was inspired by the story of a similar group in Baton Rouge, La. and by her own sense of purpose.
"I've always been the type of person who was good with kids, but I've never had the opportunity to (work with them) in my vocation," she said.
But Nichols, who moved to Henry County five years ago, has served as a substitute teacher for the Henry County School System. And as an information technology specialist for WorldSpan before she was laid off, Nichols was trained in seeing projects through.
For Chosen Heirs, she said, "The education and the project management came together to help me do what I do."
Starting in September of 2002, Chosen Heirs began holding its "Saturday Academy" each week. The group now meets at the Greater New Hope Christian Assembly in Ellenwood, which donates the space.
The academy follows a curriculum focusing on character education, etiquette, field trips, educational enrichment, community service, money management, abstinence, entrepreneurship and a parent support group.
Among the community service projects in which the girls engaged last year were collecting canned goods for the elderly and homebound, sorting medical supplies for shipments to Third-World countries and sending letters and care packages to U.S. troops in the Middle East.
Next year, Nichols wants to participate in the Bridge of Books Program to create literacy links between the Chosen Heirs and a girls' school in South Africa. She also wants participants to produce a monthly 30-minute talk show and, if the group can find space with access to computers, to participate in virtual business and virtual budget programs.
Funding for the program comes from a combination of grants, proceeds from the annual fundraiser and contributions throughout the year. Last year's luncheon garnered almost $3,000.
Last year the program included 12 girls. She said she knows of at least nine who plan to participate again. Fifteen is about the maximum capacity for now, she said.
For those who participate, said Chosen Heirs Board of Directors President Toya Davidson, the group can be a helpful step on the path to responsible adulthood.
"We basically try to give them a very well-rounded program that nurtures them from being a young girl to being a young lady," she said.
A Lawrenceville resident who has known Nichols since 1993, Davidson said that when her friend told her about the idea for Chosen Heirs, "I knew I just couldn't help but help her."
Now working part-time jobs for a cellular telephone network company, as a substitute teacher for Henry County Schools and as a cosmetics retailer, Nichols probably needs all the help she can get.
Nevertheless, she is still enthusiastic about Chosen Heirs.
"Finding this was even greater than anything I had to sacrifice or go through," she said.