APU Careers Careers & Learning Podcast Public Service

Alumni Success: Stars That Shine

By John Robert Morton, Liaison, Student & Alumni Affairs and
Alisha Puller, Founder, Stars That Shine; alumna, MA in Public Administration

Taking the leap to start your own organization takes courage. In this episode, APU Alumni Affairs Liaison John Robert Morton talks to APU alumna Alisha Puller about her non-profit organization, Stars that Shine. Learn how this organization aims to help middle and high school girls in West Virginia through empowerment and educational programming.

Listen to the Episode:

Read the Transcript:

John Morton: Welcome everybody to our first Alumni Affairs podcast. I’m your host, John Robert Morton, and today I have the distinct pleasure of talking to the founder and executive director of Stars That Shine, a West Virginia-based nonprofit. Joining us is Alisha Puller, who runs the nonprofit. Thank you so much for being here, Alisha.

Alisha Puller: Good morning.

John Morton: We’re going to go through some introductions first, since this is our first time so the listeners and people that do start listening might get to know me and people that are going to be doing the podcast on a regular basis. I’m John Robert Morton. I’m an Alumni Affairs liaison, and I focus on producing content from our alumni for our alumni community, specifically.

Alisha, will you go into your background a little bit about what you’re doing? We’re going to recap our APUS experience together after this because I think it’s important that people know our relationship before we get going.

Alisha Puller: So, currently I do run a nonprofit, Stars That Shine. We work with girls in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Prior to that, I worked at American Public University and received a certificate in family studies and my master’s degree in Public Administration and health policy. I was here for nine years.

John Morton: Nine years, that’s right. I have been here 13 years and Alisha used to work in the Registrar’s Department, and I worked in Academic Advising.

It is a pleasure to hear you’re doing so well and the work that you’re doing. And so, I want to get into more specifically what the nonprofit is. Where did the idea come from and what did it take for you to jump into this founder and executive director role?

Alisha Puller: So, a little bit about what we do. So, we work with middle school and high school girls from empowerment to self-esteem building, healthy self images, healthy relationships. We do a new program we just started, which is called ACE, and it’s Academic and Career Enrichment. And it’s helping some of our girls and the community itself if there are a need for tutoring, more academic exploration, and career exploration and just working with different partners in the community and getting some of our girls kind of the experience behind the scene of what goes into getting a job and what different jobs look like so they can make those decisions once they’re in their last few years of high school, if they’re going to go on to college, if they’re going to get a certificate,or just go straight into the workforce.

So that’s a very new program. And then we also provide feminine hygiene products to any family or girl in need. In the panhandle of West Virginia, that is one of our biggest programs. We work directly with the school systems and the panhandle and getting products into the school so it’s more accessible for our middle and high school girls in the area and then along with community pickup days for that. So that is one of our biggest programs, and it’s called Girls United Period. So, prior to working at American Public University, I worked in residential care for at-risk youth. And I absolutely loved it, but I also wanted to further my education, and at that time I was 23, 24, and I really didn’t have desk experience.

So, I’ve never had what I would consider a big girl job. So, that’s what led me to American Public University, and I absolutely loved it. I stayed in the Office of the Registrar the entire time, the same position. I loved my team. My team was my family, and they still are. So, we still have that connection of friendship and family, and that’s like one of the biggest reasons it was really hard for me to leave. I started developing the organization and focusing more on it probably in 2017. And then by 2019, I filed for our 501c3, and we were approved.

And at that point it kind of got real, and I was like, “Okay, what are my next steps?”

 We received our first grant at the beginning of the pandemic, and our first program would have started in April of 2020, which I say if we survived a pandemic, we can kind of survive anything because we started literally at the beginning of a pandemic. I knew that it was something that if I wanted it to grow and I wanted to reach the individuals in my community, I would have to focus on it at some point full time. I know that we need more funding. If anyone knows kind of how a nonprofit works, you’re going off of grant funding, foundation funding, donations, fundraisers. So it’s not something that is a guarantee every single year, the same amount of money.

John Morton: That’s wonderful. That’s one of the first things I wanted to get into is how’d you get noticed? When the first grant came through, who was it from and how did they hear about you and what was your expectations when you first heard that news?

Alisha Puller: So, our first grant, I actually have a good friend that works for the Development Authority and she had reached out and was like, “Hey, here’s a grant opportunity that I think would fit your organization.” And it was for a pilot program. I talked to my best friend, I talked to my parents, and I’m like, I’m just going to apply for it. We’ll see what happens. I spent two years in my master’s degree writing papers every week. So, I’m like, I can write, it’s not too difficult. So, it was for $22,000. I wrote the grant.

So, they told us it would be between the 17th and the 20th of December. And I think on the 21st I got the letter that we received it in the full amount. So, at that point I knew that it was real, and I was super excited. I couldn’t believe it. It was a state grant, so it was from the Herbert Henderson Minority Office of Affairs under the governor’s office. So, that was our first grant. We had our ceremony in February of 2020 where the governor came up to the eastern panhandle and we did a ceremony, a check giving, photo op, all of those fun things that come with it. So, that was our very first one and it was actually for our Girls United Period project, which at that time, the pandemic, everything was shutting down. So, it was a way that we were able to still reach out to the community without being face to face with people because we were able to ship, we were able to drop off. And then you were able to do contactless pickup when we would have community days at the park.

I applied for a grant through United Way, which was a smaller grant and that was to kind of kick off our girls’ empowerment workshops on the weekends. We’ve now received three grants from United Way and become a yearly partner. We participate in their Unity Campaign. So, that’s been really amazing, really great and a lot of our traction not only came from the Girls United Period project, but also being a partner of United Way and being a very, very new organization. I came into this very new with zero experience in nonprofit.

I came into this very new with zero experience in nonprofit. I just knew that I wanted to help. I knew what I wanted to do, but on the business side of things, it was very, very new to me. And just so many different organizations stepping in and helping out and talking with me and meeting with me.

And then I know with United Way being one of their partners, they have meetings throughout the year. And a lot of them are info, but also learning opportunities for newer nonprofits in the community.

John Morton: While we’re talking about grants, it is a picture of you at the state capital holding a check that’s got $50,000 on it from UniCare Community Investment grant. Tell me a little bit about getting a number like that from somebody who’s obviously very behind your cause and believes in what you’re doing.

Alisha Puller: So, Uni Health Care, so it is an insurance company. They work with a lot of individuals throughout the state of West Virginia. They actually reached out to us and said that they had a great opportunity that they thought we might be interested in. I read through it, applied for it, they let us know that we received it in the amount of $50,000.

John Morton: Tell me your reaction at that initial moment you saw that you got approved for it.

Alisha Puller: I couldn’t believe it because I was very, very excited. It was one of those like, “Oh my gosh, we actually got it for the amount that we wrote it for.” So, the grant itself is for an expansion of our Girls United Period project. It is to expand in other counties throughout the state that are in need or their school systems are in need of feminine hygiene products. And one of the other things that we have added to the list for the panhandle, at least for the schools, currently are black leggings.

And, I’ll give you a little background. So, the stats for girls missing school due to inadequate supplies in the country is one in five. So, if you look in a classroom one in five, so yeah, that’s a lot. It’s happening very regularly. Well, in the state of West Virginia during the pandemic, it went to one in four in the state of West Virginia. So, that increased it to about 25%. We decided that instead of just the panhandle, that’s a program we need to spread throughout the state. So, we are currently working and looking at other counties to expand into. So that’s the backing of that grant is more so for expansion.

And I know a few things within this grant is the educational piece. So we are looking to have an educational entity a few times a year where it will not only teach young girls about their period, breaking the stigma, being able to talk about it, but also the health side of it. And what’s healthy, what’s not healthy, and the reason that you should keep an eye out or reason that you need adequate supplies because there are some that still don’t see why they need to do certain things.

So, we are looking at planning, and one of those will be planned with our funder.

John Morton: Alisha, how many girls do you think you reach with these programs?

Alisha Puller: So, for our Girls United Period program, I can’t give you a number of how many we reach since we go directly through the schools. So, within the schools, if we count all of the schools in both counties that are middle and high, well over 10 schools.

And then for our other programs, so our empowerment program, we just started after-school recently, but we used to have weekend empowerment workshops like every other month. And those ranged anywhere from five to seven, seven to 10 girls. We currently host a Thursday night for Berkeley County for high school and Monday for middle and high school. And then we do one night, for Jefferson County for middle and high school for it’s called Girl Next Door. And it’s a more in-depth program. Each week we focus on a different topic.

And we focused on goal setting. So, we’re only meeting every other week in-person just because they’re definitely at an age that they’re wanting to participate in other things. A few of them are planning to do sports, so we don’t want to make it too much of a hassle, one for parents, and then also for them giving them another responsibility because we like to say while we’re empowering, we’re working on ourselves, we’re learning how to be successful entities within the community, within society. We also want it to be a place that you can relax. You can let go, you can breathe and not so much of a responsibility. We’re hoping within the next year to at least grow both middle and high school programs in both counties to 10 to 15 girls.

We like to keep a smaller group because it’s easier for them to open up. And I will say we hosted summer camp for the first time this year and having a smaller group, we got to see from day one coming in to the last day to just last month, we had an empowerment workshop like their friendship build and being excited to see each other. So, we would love to reach everyone, and at some point we will. We’re small. It’s me, an admin and a program coordinator and lots of volunteers. So, very small, but we do hope in the future that we will be able to take on more than what we’re doing now.

John Morton: It certainly sounds like you are setting yourself up for that forward movement. Since you brought up volunteers, let’s talk about the service events. I was very, very disappointed that I live in Alabama, and I was not able to attend the last event. But I saw the pictures, and it looked like everybody was working and everybody was having a good time. And tell us a little bit about what goes on at those service events.

Alisha Puller: So, this one kicked off Day of Caring for us, and your wonderful team, which we are greatly appreciative of, especially myself. We would not have been able to package and get things out like we did, without them. They might see it as a very small task of just packaging, but it was tremendous for us, especially that we were able to box and package stuff for all of the Berkeley County middle and high schools that day.

So, at those events, normally if we have volunteers, a lot of it is packaging. So we will package either for the community, we do a three-month supply of feminine hygiene products.

For this project itself, we broke everything down from all of your feminine-hygiene products, wipes, all of those things. Each individual school, we did calendars, and they also did bags. So they’re little cute, I’ll say they look like makeup bags, that’s the easiest way to describe them. But they are equipped with what you need for that week and it is something that the teachers were able to keep in their classroom and hand out and refill them. So, it’s a little more discreet for the young ladies.

But as far as the day, yeah, they came in, they put boxes together, they broke down boxes, they packaged everything, stacked it up, carried it from upstairs to downstairs, then back up. So, it was a very nice day, and I definitely enjoyed them.

John Morton: Well, they had the most fun. I know the volunteers are extremely helpful, but what they pulled from those events was very impactful for them. And they told me all about it to the point where I was like, “Alright, that’s enough. I’m getting involved. How can I get involved?” Oh, oh, oh podcast. Yes, I can certainly see if I can get her on the podcast so we can share this great work that you’re doing with a little bit wider audience than… Well I guess y’all are all over social media. It sounds like a great program. Sounds like a program we need in a lot of areas.

Is there anything else you want to tell us about the Stars That Shine real quick while we’re talking about it?

Alisha Puller: So you brought up social media. We do have someone that does run our social media. So we do have a lot of posts, and that’s one way always to keep track of what we’re doing is through social media or our website.

John Morton: Go to the website, and then I’m sure all your social media’s there.

Alisha Puller: Definitely. And then there’s also on the website, there is contact form, a Get Involved form that you can fill out for more information. So our website is www.stslg2success.com or you can Google Stars That Shine Empowerment nonprofit or Stars That Shine West Virginia, and we should come right up.

John Morton: Thank you. And so, everybody that’s listening, y’all go and check Alisha’s page out. Y’all get involved. Tell me what’s next for Stars That Shine. I know you got a lot going on.

Alisha Puller: We do. We have a lot going on. I will say what’s next is kind of what we’re working on now, and that’s one, retention and growth in the program. We are exploring another program to add to the umbrella of Stars That Shine, which would be leadership. We currently do offer internships, and most of it is just an educational experience to see different entities for marketing, to admin, to social services, to peer groups. We have an array of things that we can offer when it comes to internships. So that’s something that we want to kind of dig a little deeper in and expand that program a little more along with leadership.

We think leadership, one, is really important. Learning who you are and learning what you want, and that it’s okay to be just you. Like it’s okay to just be genuinely you. And there are some things that you’re not going to like, there are some things that you’re going to love. But we do think continuing through the program will set you up for leadership roles. So, we really want to explore that with our high school group of girls and getting them more involved in leadership. So that is one thing that’s next for us that we are looking to partner with a few other organizations throughout the eastern panhandle and look at some leadership opportunities or conferences that we can do together or combined and just kind of grow the entity of the importance of leadership.

John Morton: Yeah, that’s wonderful. That sounds great. That sounds like a great future goal. I want to go over how others can get involved, how people can help out, where they can go, back to your website, what they can do there to help in any way that they can?

Alisha Puller: Back to our website, so of course, looking us up on social media website, we have a volunteer form that you can fill out. We have many opportunities from helping educational side, packaging to help deliver feminine hygiene products, helping with peer groups.

Nonprofits you need money to run, you need grants, you need fundraising, you need donors. We need donations, that’s how we run. But time for us, we’re very small so time is always one of our biggest things. You can always reach out to us because we, 99% of the time have some type of volunteer opportunity.

And that goes for if you are a makeup artist, a hairdresser, we do workshops that revolve around self-image. There’s just so many opportunities aside from just packaging, helping deliver. But there are so many other talents. I know one of the things that the girls loved during the summer is we did an empowerment skit. So, if you’re an acting coach or you have participated in plays, just volunteering your time to come in and work with them. So there’s so many opportunities to get involved.

John Morton: It’s wonderful you keep it so broad that you don’t have to be one certain something to help out. That literally anybody with any skill or trade or a passion can come in and volunteer their time to help with your project and everything that you’re doing for the young ladies of the West Virginia state. I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming in and participating in my first podcast. I’ve had a blast talking with you. And is there anything else you want to share? I know we’ve covered a lot.

Alisha Puller: We have. I’d like to say thank you for reaching out. It was a great opportunity, and I’m happy that we got to connect again. So I’m very, very grateful. And I thank you guys so much for thinking of me and always thinking about the organization and helping out any way possible. Even though some of the things might be small, they are tremendous to us just because we’re getting help. So I do, I thank you so much for thinking of me and having me on today.

John Morton: The pleasure was all on my side of the table. And I just want to thank you for sharing your experience and your perspective and everything that’s going on. And I just thank you for joining me today on this episode.

Alisha Puller: You’re welcome. Thank you.

John Morton: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. I hope everybody will be well and stay safe.

John Robert Morton is a Student & Alumni Affairs Liaison and has been with the University for 13 years. His bachelor’s degree in European history is from Troy University in Troy, Alabama. He also completed master’s degrees in political science and sports management from American Military University. As a liaison, John Robert enjoys helping students and alumni to achieve their personal and professional goals.

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