Girls, Inc. of Greater Lowell  members Claudazia Brown, left, and Destinee Melendez.Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
Girls, Inc. of Greater Lowell members Claudazia Brown, left, and Destinee Melendez.

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

By Debbie Hovanasian

sunfaith@comcast.net

LOWELL - Growing up, Claudazia Brown managed to stay on a good track, thanks to her grandmother, Rebecca Brown. While working full-time, Rebecca raised Claudazia and her three younger brothers from the time Claudazia was a preschooler.

Once a member of the Lowell Girls Club herself, Rebecca enrolled Claudazia in Girls, Inc. at age 7 to keep her from undesirable choices. In the preteen years, that started to change. In Claudazia's own words, a "bad song" came into her life and she started to drift.

Before long, she found herself in the office of Carol Duncan, then executive director of Girls, Inc.

Carol Duncan, retired executive director of Girls, Inc. of Greater Lowell, and this year’s honoree at the Celebration of Today’s Woman
Carol Duncan, retired executive director of Girls, Inc. of Greater Lowell, and this year's honoree at the Celebration of Today's Woman gala. photo by kevin harkins

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
That meeting, where Duncan told her she was better than that and that more was expected of her, was the catalyst for turning things around.

"I decided to convert into something good, knowing that Carol, my role model, believed in me," Claudazia said. "If I didn't, I'd now be on the verge of being a juvenile delinquent or a teen mom."

Today, Claudazia is an honor student in the freshman class at Lowell High School, a regular member of the Girls, Inc. Teen Center that Duncan founded, a talented dancer, prolific writer, avid reader and an aspiring actress who has her sights set on either Juilliard or Alvin Alley Dance School after she graduates high school.

In other words, Claudazia is into "something good." And she knows exactly who helped set her on that path.

Duncan's work as Girls, Inc. executive director for the last 22 years falls into the same category as teachers, counselors, coaches and social workers. They touch countless young lives every day, but it's not always immediately clear the positive difference they have made.

"After 22 years, it's hard to even imagine how many lives Carol has positively impacted and mentored and worked to benefit," said Tracy Reilly Ingersoll, Duncan's successor following Duncan's December retirement.

Girls, Inc. of Greater Lowell member Claudazia Brown, left, and her grandmother, Ruth Brown.photo by debbie hovansianSun staff photos can be ordered by
Girls, Inc. of Greater Lowell member Claudazia Brown, left, and her grandmother, Ruth Brown. photo by debbie hovansian

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

Duncan is likely to hear a few stories of the impact she has made on Girls, Inc. members at the 2014 Celebration of Today's Woman on June 5, an event at which she will receive the "Woman of Today Award."

Claudazia, 15, and another Teen Center member, Destinee Melendez, 13, had a few words to say about the award going to Duncan this year.

"Carol means so much to me. Girls, Inc. has been like my second home. It brings light and makes me smile," Melendez said. "Carol inspires me to go out and go after my dream. She's worked so hard and put herself out there, so she really deserves this award."

"Without Carol, life would have been a bad song. I'm so happy she is getting the award. She really deserves it," Claudazia said.

Rebecca Brown described Duncan as a "phenomenal role model for Claudazia and all the girls. Carol so much deserves this award for what she has done for them and for the Teen Center. She is just awesome."

Brown added that she hopes more girls take advantage of the Teen Center, which is named for Duncan. Duncan worked tirelessly to raise the funds for a special place where teen girls could spend time connecting with each other, doing homework, using the computer, relaxing on a bean bag and simply staying safe -- all in an age-appropriate space.

As for Duncan, who is typically low-key, humble and is more accustomed to giving this award to others, it's "a great honor. I'm especially honored after having done all the other introductions for all these other women who have received the award. It's a little different to be on the other side."

The 21st annual event marks the first time in the past 20 years that Duncan will not be giving out the award, and instead receiving it.

"We have seen a very impressive group of women receive this award, and I feel honored just to be in their category," she said.

While Duncan is retired and enjoying some free time, her interest in the girls at Girls, Inc. has not waned one bit.

"I will always be there for them in any way that I can. I love this organization and it will always be close to my heart," she said. "I'll do whatever I still can to make sure they reach as many girls as possible."

Claudazia Brown will receive an award at the June 5 event as well. Her talent for writing, which became evident during the Girls, Inc. literacy programs in conjunction with UMass Lowell, has earned her the Mary Sampas Literacy Award. It's named for the late, beloved journalist for The Sun.

"I think Mary would have loved that Claudazia is receiving this award," said Duncan.

Kelsey Barowich, a junior at UMass Amherst majoring in Women's Studies with a concentration in Race Relations, will also be honored at the event with the National Alumnae of the Year Recognition.

According to Reilly Ingersoll, Barowich was chosen for the award because of her devotion to Girls, Inc., as a volunteer as well as a part-time staffer over the summer. She started with Girls, Inc. as a young member in 2001.

"Girls, Inc. has been a huge deal for me and it really helped to shape who I am today. The homework help and positive role models, like (program director) Jen Demers, have just been super awesome," said Barowich. "I'm really honored and excited about the award."

As for Duncan receiving the Celebration of Today's Woman Award, Barowich, who was raised by a devoted single dad, "did not have a lot of female role models in my life, so to have someone like Carol take an interest in me, then and now, and tell me that I was doing something well, it was awesome and empowering. She is just incredible and so deserving of this award."

For more information on the event, email Tracy Reilly Ingersoll at tingersoll@girlsinclowell.org.