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By Kristina Pritchett

Inside one of the conference rooms at the Dana Point Library, a group of teenagers read stories to a handful of younger kids. The teens’ faces were full of emotion, their voices changed as they read from different characters and the kids were grinning as each page was turned.

The storytime is part of the Sunshine Readers, which was founded by one of the National Charity League mother daughter teams more than 25 years ago.

Currently, the program is at six libraries in South Orange County and helps children learn in a fun, interactive way.

“It teaches the girls diction, public speaking skills, gives them confidence and empowerment,” said Julia Johnson, founder of the program. “I want them to have power when they get in front of a crowd.”

During the Monday evening reading, she stood by and took notes as each of the girls read. She offered professional criticism and smiled as the children on the rug were engaged with the story.

“They get to become leaders, and they learn how to build kids up,” Johnson said.

But, the Sunshine Readers is just one way to make the young women leaders.

They’re part of a mother-daughter organization known as the National Charity League, Laguna Chapter.

NCL is a nonprofit organization comprised of mother and daughter members across the country who honor the maternal bond. NCL empowers young women with the skills and confidence to lead, mentor one another, and provide support to their communities.

“The focus is to honor the mother-daughter bond,” said Chapter President Kelly Redden. “It’s special time with our daughters by serving the community.”

Not only do they serve the community and gain leadership skills, they learn about cultural experiences.

The girls are eligible to join NCL when they’re entering seventh grade, and continue until they are seniors in high school.

The Laguna chapter works with more than 20 different South Orange County organizations including the Ocean Institute, Family Assistance Ministries, the Shea Center and more. Redden said as the girls grow and mature, they’re able to work with different philanthropies, and they’re able to create their own if they see a specific need in the community.

One of the chapter’s moms said she wanted to join an organization dedicated to mother-daughter teams and community service.

“We’re all doers. We like to get involved and give back to the community,” Tori Cleary said about the group. “We also place value on teaching our kids the importance of giving back.”

For the older girls that have been volunteering for six years with a handful of organizations said it’s been an eye opening experience.

“The term OC bubble comes up a lot,” Kate Redden said. “It’s kind of like we’re in this very sheltered place, we’re in a very affluent place where not a lot of bad things happen. It’s a very comfortable lifestyle which I’m thankful for, and we don’t have to face some of the violence that other places do. Until I joined NCL, I didn’t see how many people in our community still need help despite the stereotype.”

Shannon Clary said by working with Orangewood, a children’s home in Orange County, she’s learned she wants to keep working with kids.

Although the girls rack up the volunteering hours, NCL is not just about that.

“We develop (the girls’) leadership skills and social etiquette,” Redden said. “We believe teaching the girls these things is important to move forward in life.”

All of these lessons lead to a debutante ball and a mother-daughter tea.

When one hears the word etiquette and debutante ball, they may think it’s an old tradition. To the NCL Laguna chapter, they continue the tradition and cherish it.

“It’s one of the things that is a testament to NCL,” Redden said. “For our senior girls, it’s a way of debuting them. It’s a lovely evening and we acknowledge their six years of service to the community.”

Redden said their chapter is one of five in the country that continues to hold the ball.

“They have to practice walking in heels, they wear a white gown which has clearly defined guidelines,” Redden said. “They’re given a medallion and there’s a St. James bow they have to do. (The bow) would probably be the most outdated for today’s lifestyle.”

Across the table Kellie’s youngest daughter Lily grinned.

“I’m excited for the ball,” Lily said. “I want a dress.”

Lily is one of the younger members of the group, but has an older sister, Kate, to guide her.

A few weeks ago, Shannon and Kate talked to new members and said there was a large crowd. Instead of getting nervous, they remembered the skills they’ve learned throughout their years with the NCL.

“I was asked to talk in front of the new members, and if I didn’t have NCL and Sunshine Readers, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Kate said. “I would’ve sat quietly in the back.”

Shannon nodded and recalled before joining NCL she was terrified to speak in front of a group.

“I would shake,” Shannon said laughing.

Now, they both said speaking to a group is no longer a problem for them.

Each age group, or class, is taught to hold meetings, and run for elected positions.

“When these girls get to be seniors, it’s impressive to watch,” said Michelle Hoover said.

Kate and Shannon are graduating in just a few weeks and when they were asked about how they felt spending so much time with their moms during their teenage years, they smiled.

“I really enjoy having that time with my mom,” Kate said. “It’s nice because it gets really busy in high school, it’s really nice when you go to a philanthropy and you’re with your mom. It gives you a nice break from it all.”

At the end of the conversation, Kate said she will miss spending time with her mom and Lily the most.

As the year winds down the girls will continue to volunteer and possibly create their own philanthropies. The seniors will be recognized during the debutante ball in December.

For more information about the organization, visit www.nationalcharityleague.org.

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