China Burr sits at the front desk of the 21st Century Charter Upper School, in the central hub of the building.  As the school receptionist, Ms. Burr’s is the first face you see when you enter the building, and the last you see when you leave it.  You might hear her voice over the course of the day as she calls out school announcements over the intercom system, or over the phone, when she answers the main line of the school with her signature upbeat greeting, “It’s a beautiful day at 21st Century!”

As such a central member in the community of this school, Ms. Burr decided to do something great for the senior girls of the graduating Class of 2015.  “These girls are about to go out into the real world,” Ms. Burr explained.  “I want to uplift them, to motivate them to continue on with their education, do good things in the city, and help lead them down a path of excellence.”  So in January 2015, she organized the Cougar Belles, a community and leadership group for the female members of the current graduating class.  The Cougar Belles now meet every Tuesday at 1pm, to discuss and plan community and social events.

The first Cougar Belles event was held at school on the last weekend of Black History Month.  Chicken and waffles were served as the girls watched Selma, a recent Hollywood release chronicling the American Civil Rights movement.  Afterwards, Ms. Burr led a discussion about the film.  “We talked about the history of racism and prejudice, and how it continues today,” Ms. Burr recounts, “as well as ways to overcome it by being strong, independent women, holding our own, and being positive influences in our community.”

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In anticipation of the upcoming Senior Prom, Ms. Burr and the Cougar Belles organized a Senior Fashion Show on April 2nd.  Ms. Burr reached out to members of the community and Northwest Indiana businesses to locate donors for the event.  As a result, Paris House of Bridal of Michigan City donated two dresses for each senior girl who had elected to model in the show, and went the extra mile by helping to dress and prepare the girls on-site at 21st Century Charter.  The girls’ accompanying senior boys were outfitted thanks to the generous donations of Dunhill Tuxedos of Merrillville.  A runway had been constructed in the school cafeteria, and the seniors strutted down it to the sounds of bumping music and the cheers of their family and friends.  Ms. Burr led a raffle drawing, made possible by the donations of local businesses.  Seniors attending the event walked away with numerous giveaways, many with an emphasis on beauty and fashion to fit the prom theme – $50 certificates with local makeup artists and barbers; vouchers to see a movie at Hobart 12 in Merrillville for a fun post-prom activity.

Up next is a Mother-Daughter Brunch on May 2nd for senior girls and their families.  Students will attend in tea-length dresses, topped off with wide-brimmed hats, and celebrate their accomplishments together.  Ms. Burr arranged for Tiara Hodge of Oxygen’s “Bad Girls Club” to host the event, which will be catered by Jelly’s Pancake House of Gary.  Ms. Burr also contacted Judy Nash of Vh1’s “Tough Love: Co-Ed” to attend as a guest speaker.  Both Ms. Hodge and Ms. Nash of TV fame will talk about their life experiences with the Cougar Belles and their families.  A senior girls’ sleepover event is also in plans to take place towards the end of the year, as well as a pinning event for the senior girls to initiate the junior girls’ rise into the Senior Class of 2016.  Thank you to Ms. Burr for creating and strengthening our school community and the lives of our students with the Cougar Belles!