- Keren Taylor began WriteGirl, a writing program for at-risk teens in Los Angeles
- The former sales exec started the nonprofit with severance pay when she was laid off
- Participants get one-on-one mentoring to work on writing, speaking skills and schoolwork
- Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes
Los Angeles (CNN)After being laid off from a corporate job, many people might use their severance money to pay bills or buy groceries.
Keren Taylor used hers to launch a nonprofit.
"A lot of people were wondering what the hell I was doing," Taylor said.
The former sales executive dipped into her savings and began working 18-hour days to start a creative writing program for at-risk teenagers in Los Angeles.
"Some of our girls face the greatest challenges teens could ever face: violence at home, violence in their community, huge schools with security guards in the parking lot and in the lunchroom," said Taylor, 50. "They need to know that their voice is important. Their stories are important."
In the Los Angeles public schools, nearly one in five students drops out before high school graduation.
In the last 12 years, Taylor's organization, WriteGirl, has helped around 500 girls graduate high school and go on to college.
The power of a girl -- and her pen
This year, 350 girls from 60 area high schools are participating in Taylor's program.
All the girls receive one-on-one mentoring to work on their writing, speaking skills and academics. This, Taylor says, gives them the confidence to speak up and reach out for help in school, in their relationships and at home.
"There are so many girls with so many heart-wrenching stories," Taylor said. "I often wake up in the night thinking about them."
About 150 girls take part in the group's "Core Program." Some meet with a designated mentor every week; others attend monthly workshops for mentor support.
Taylor expects all 60 of the seniors in the core program to enroll in college next year.
"We are working feverishly to make sure they all go to college, even though this is the biggest number that we've ever had," she said.
The other participating students are critically at-risk: Many are pregnant, have children or are incarcerated.
"(Our van) takes our volunteers to them," Taylor said. "That's been really exciting to bring the program to girls who otherwise wouldn't be able to come to us."
Finding their voice
Taylor says the program helps the girls improve their grades and their confidence.
"They can walk into a WriteGirl workshop and they're not going to get criticized, judged, graded, any of that," she said. "They can just relax, let their ideas out and grow as individuals."
Anastasia said she was flunking classes until she was paired with a WriteGirl mentor who took the time to work with her every week.
"My grammar improved, my sentences were beyond amazing, so it was amazing how I transformed," said the 14-year-old. "I used to get F's, and now I get A's, B's and C's."
"A lot of our girls have those ah-ha moments, like, 'Wow, I could be a journalist.' Or 'I could go on to go to college outside of Los Angeles,' " Taylor said. "They have these eye-opening experiences that really give them a lot more hope about their future."
The talent pool
WriteGirl mentors include journalists, screenwriters, authors, poets and executives from varied backgrounds and ethnicities. Each is asked to commit at least one hour a week to their mentee.
"Some mentors say it's the most rewarding thing they've ever done," Taylor said. "(They) tell us they get just as much as they give, if not more."
Mentors and mentees also participate in monthly programs that explore subjects such as poetry, journalism and screenwriting. The girls can also receive help with college applications.
Each girl has the opportunity to submit their writing for publication. Taylor has directed the production of more than two dozen collections of works by teenage girls and their mentors. WriteGirl publications have received numerous awards.
Taylor, who didn't take a salary for two years so the the program could get going, says she has no regrets about her decision to abandon the corporate world.
"I wanted to do something that would be inspiring and something that would have meaning for others," she said. "I wake up every morning and I think about how we can make a greater impact."
Want to get involved? Check out the WriteGirl website at www.writegirl.org and see how to help.