Kim Thomas was tired of getting on the Internet and only seeing negative influences and statistics for young black girls.
In 2008, she decided to do something about it. Drawing on her own experiences and the vast resources of the web, Thomas created Afro Puffs and Ponytails Inc., an organization that bills itself as "The Inspiration of African American Girls."
"It just started off as me wanting to do something positive," said Thomas, the temporary office assistant for the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce while Teleen Neville is on maternity leave.
The site originally consisted mostly of encouraging messages for black girls, written by Thomas and experts who submit articles to a Web site called Ezine, which allows people to write about niche subjects and gain greater exposure. Thomas also added links to other similar organizations on a list that now includes 79 groups from 23 states and the District of Columbia.
She also started a high-achiever category that highlights success stories, which have included students making an honor roll, graduating high school or even winning the crown of Miss Teen Black USA.
"It is set up to recognize their talents, to reward good behavior, and just to kind of guide them," Thomas says.
Soon after the site launched, plenty of people sent e-mails to share their interest in Thomas' ideas and ask for her advice. Her name isn't listed anywhere on the website, and she says a lot of people were surprised when they asked for a representative to come speak to a group and found Thomas didn't have any help.
In January of this year, she decided to improve the communication and collaboration between the people who kept contacting her by creating the Professional Leaders of Women and Girls. The online community allows its members to chat and share stories of different ways to empower and encourage black girls.
Shortly after Thomas moved to Thomson from Hampton, Va., Afro Puffs and Ponytails held an event in Thomson last March called "Celebrating the Girl I Am" that drew about 15 people. Thomas said she's probably more well-known nationally than she is in the community, although she's been meeting a lot of people through her work at the chamber.
As a former member of the Air Force, Thomas lived in plenty of places, including The Philippines for five years.
She has three children in college, and her mother grew up in Thomson and is back living in the area, but Thomas says she hasn't really spent much time here before.
The growth of AfroPuffs and Ponytails has opened up some revenue opportunities, including approved advertisements that fit the message of the site and a book corner where authors pay to have their books listed or reviewed. She stresses that although black girls are the main focus and make up the majority of her audience, the group is open to everyone and does have some diversity in its membership.
Thomas said she considered changing the site's name and banner to something more inclusive, but she realized she didn't want to do something solely to appease her critics. She adds that if black girls are singled out for negative things like high pregnancy rates and low graduation rates, why shouldn't they be singled out for positive messages too?
"Shouldn't we want to give them help so those statistics will improve?" she asks.
The site's popularity has grown well beyond Thomas' expectations, and she said she occasionally works on it late into the night. The site's traffic peaked at about 5,000 visitors and 28,000 pageviews this summer before Thomas started working at the chamber and didn't have as much time to add new content.
Ideally, Thomas says, the company would be a full-time job with staff to help spread the site's positive message.
Now that she finally has enlisted three board members, she is on her way to achieving official nonprofit status, which would allow her to receive donations.