Layla’s Got You

A group of young women, ages 16 to 24, have been making waves in the arenas of mental and sexual health. Working as ambassadors for the Layla’s Got You program, they have spearheaded a variety of initiatives and events including having raised more than $20,000 to support an overnight educational retreat.

Published August 11th, 2022

              Many people will reach a time in their lives when they begin to seek out ways to give back to their community and help others overcome the challenges that they themselves have faced. In the cases of Ashley Homer, Jaiyah Pierce, and Ja’Rhea Dixon – this calling came early. Ranging from 16 to 25 years of age, these three women began working together as ambassadors for the Layla’s Got You initiative with the goal of providing resources, motivation, and support to other young women across the City of Syracuse.

Created by the Allyn Family Foundation, this program connects young women across Syracuse with a wealth of information and resources to support their mental, sexual, and reproductive health needs.

The New Growth Retreat, organized by ambassadors from the Layla’s Got You initiative, brought experts on mental and sexual health practices to present to a group of 20 young women from Syracuse and Rochester.

It even features a chatbot which provides instant answers to questions that “you’re not exactly running home to talk to mom about,” such as STDs, birth control, sexual practices, and more. Under the guidance of The Allyn Family Foundation’s Director of Women’s Health and Engagement, Tiffany Lloyd, these women helped to shape the image of the program and grow its audience.

The Layla’s Got You ambassadors are young women who have applied and been selected to take on much of the outreach, promotions, and organizing that the initiative does. “They do grant writing, presentations, and get real marketing experience. The rest of us at Allyn offer support but try to step back and let them learn by taking the lead,” says Lloyd. By structuring it in this way, the ambassadors themselves gain valuable professional experience while also being able to help the program reach their peers in a more authentic and engaging way.

“We started doing outreach into the community, distributing feminine products and going into classroom settings to speak to students,” explains Dixon. The program’s mission is to stop unintended pregnancies among women ages 16 – 25, and to teach a range of other life skills. “Pregnancy is not the only thing we worry about,” says Pierce. “We worry about economics, environment, education, and how many kids you have.”

Retreat participants were educated about coping with depression, building healthy relationships, wellness strategies, and also were given the opportunity to have professional headshots taken and learn strategies for crafting effective resumes.

Soon, however, they were struck by a new idea: an overnight retreat for young women to network while hearing from relatable experts in the sexual and mental health fields. “This is something new. There’s no space for Black women to meet and be themselves with likeminded individuals. We are going to have panelists of black, dynamic, women which is really important to see,” said Ashley Homer while pitching the project during a meeting with funders. “We never get to see people that look like us in a position of power, so to have a whole retreat with people who look like you and are doing well for themselves is such a great thing,” added Pierce.

Presenters ranged in age and background, representing communities of color and a variety of professions. Participants were educated about coping with depression, building healthy relationships, wellness strategies, and also were given the opportunity to have professional headshots taken and learn strategies for crafting effective resumes. They were also introduced to the many free resources available on the Layla’s Got You website.

The team knew that they would have to seek outside support to cover the costs of the retreat, and decided to apply to Gifford for funding along with a range of other private foundations, individuals, and for-profit companies. Altogether, they were able to raise roughly $20,000 in funding through a collection of smaller gifts averaging roughly $3,000 each.

Held in March at the Embassy Suites hotel near Destiny USA, the “New Growth: A Season of Planting” retreat was attended by twenty young women from Syracuse and Rochester.  “We did surveys among the participants about their own attitudes, feelings, and behaviors regarding sexual health, mental health, intimate partner violence, substance use, and alcohol.” Eight out of nineteen participants reported emotional abuse by a current partner, two out of nineteen reported physical abuse, and nearly all reported having some type of symptoms associated with depression.

Pierce, Homer, and Dixon then used this information to negotiate a month of free counseling services for each retreat participant from the mental health company Cerebral. Nearly all of the women ended up registering for this service. The data was also used in a larger workshop presentation about intimate partner violence held at the Indiana University National HIV Conference. Pierce, Homer, and Dixon were flown in and invited to present their efforts at the conference in Indianapolis last June.

One retreat attendee made a TikTok video during the retreat to help promote and share the experience. The post ended up going viral and earning over 100,000 likes on the platform, resulting in the creator being offered an internship with a social media marketing firm as a result.

Since the retreat was held in March, the three ambassadors have continued their work under the Layla’s Got You initiative. They have been busy writing grants, distributing free feminine products, and conducting speaking engagements at schools throughout Syracuse. But given the success of their New Growth retreat, they are already eagerly anticipating the next one. “It’s more about giving the ladies the knowledge to make informed decisions,” says Pierce. “It’s about getting them prepared and letting them know there are more options out there.”

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