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Allyson AhlstromAllyson Ahlstrom

Ever thought you were too young to give back to your community? Allyson Ahlstrom proves that age is nothing but a number.

When Allyson was 14, she was inspired to make a difference. She had an idea to hold a clothing drive to provide 10 girls in foster care with two new outfits each. Allyson sent out 300 letters to clothing companies for support, asking them to donate clothes. Her hard work paid off. She was able to outfit 13 teenage girls — three more than her goal. This launched the start of her nonprofit organization Threads for Teens. Since then, Threads for Teens has opened two boutiques and held over 80 pop-up events (temporary stores) in 49 states for more than 5,000 girls. Read our interview with Allyson to learn more about Threads for Teens and why she decided to start it.

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How old are you?

I'm 21.

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What is Threads for Teens?

Threads for Teens is a nonprofit clothing boutique for teen girls living in foster care and low-income households. The girls are able to shop at the boutique for free, brand-new clothing. We partner with brands such as rue21, Moroccanoi, Claire's, and Keds to make this possible. Currently, we have permanent locations in San Francisco and Minnesota. Additionally, we have held over 80 pop-up events in 49 states over the past four years, giving new outfits to more than 5,000 teens.

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What inspired you to create Threads for Teens?

My family has always made sure to involve my sister and me in community service. When I was younger, I participated in a program called Operation Christmas Child, which sends toys to kids all over the world who would otherwise not receive a Christmas gift. When I was 11, I donated my hair to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for kids with cancer.

Also, as a freshman in high school, I read a book about teens doing community service around the country. Some of them were as young as 12! One kid successfully raised money and awareness for human trafficking, and I thought, "Here's a 12-year-old making a difference. I am 14. I can do something, too!" That night after finishing the book, I created a letter, logo, and idea to hold a one-time clothing drive for girls in foster care.

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What was it like when you first helped outfit a girl?

It was incredibly rewarding to feel that I accomplished and exceeded my original goal of outfitting 10 girls. We outfitted 13! We held the opening event for Threads for Teens in August of 2010, seven months after I came up with the idea. All of the girls were extremely sweet and still hold a special place in my heart. I remember a girl from the opening event named Brittany. She was shy as she entered but left with a smile, wearing her new jeans and boots. She talked about her dream to one day become a mechanic. A year later, I heard from her social worker that Brittany was thriving and went on to trade school for mechanics. During the short time she was in the shop, I could sense a small change in her confidence and self-esteem. It was truly incredible and humbling to hear a positive long-term update about Brittany since her experience with Threads for Teens.

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What are your goals for Threads for Teens?

I want Threads for Teens to have locations in all 50 states and then even around the world! We are slowly working to accomplish this goal, starting with our locations in California and Minnesota. We also want to increase our outreach to provide resources for girls to follow their goals and be prepared for college and careers. To this end, we are developing girl empowerment curriculum and establishing a scholarship fund. We continue to do small pop-up events across the country. In fact, anyone can host a pop-up event in her area! We have had teen girls in Hawaii, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Minnesota host their own Threads for Teens pop-up stores. If you're interested in getting involved with Threads for Teens, you can donate new clothes, volunteer your time, or open your own pop-up.

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What's your favorite part about having your own nonprofit?

So much of what I learned while managing Threads for Teens has been helpful in school as well as my personal life. I also love the amount of freedom and creativity that Threads for Teens affords me. If I get a new idea, I feel like it's possible to pursue it and make it happen. It's incredibly rewarding to see all of my hard work pay off.

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How do you balance school and work?

Balancing school and work is incredibly challenging! I am constantly playing a mental tug-of-war around what I should be doing. School is definitely a top priority for me, so I make sure that I finish all my schoolwork before doing Threads for Teens. I am excited for graduation this spring so that I can devote my full attention to Threads for Teens.

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What advice do you have for girls who want to give back to their communities?

Literally, just start! If you are passionate about animals, look for local animal shelters and ask if they accept volunteers. The same goes for any sort of interest. Go online and research how you might be able to get involved. If you want to do your own project, start the best way you know how. For me, I sent out letters to clothing companies, and seven years later, here I am, still involved with the same project. No one ever really knows how to do everything. It's important to start and learn along the way.

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What about for girls who want to start their own businesses?

I would say research and read! I love to read memoirs about successful businesswomen. They inspire me to continue working and growing. Additionally, so many successful women entrepreneurs had to face many obstacles and didn't necessarily know the exact path they would have to take to reach their dreams. Some memoirs I like are Getting Real by Gretchen Carlson, GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso, and My Story by Jo Malone. I also highly recommend an incredibly inspiring book called Pencils of Promise by Adam Braun, who founded a nonprofit organization with the same name.

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Is there anything else you would like to share?

Never let age stop you from doing anything! You are never too young or old to make a difference and follow your dreams. The most important thing is to just start. Also, check out Threads for Teens on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

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Learn more about volunteering in your community and building community relationships.

Content last reviewed January 31, 2017
Page last updated February 9, 2017

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.