ATLANTIC CITY — In early spring 2011, a handful of princesses gathered at the city’s Police Athletic League building to talk female empowerment and community service.
The group of girls may not have actually been princesses, but they were being groomed to be leaders.
Friends Indra Owens and Automne Bennett were born and raised in Atlantic City and wanted to create an organization for girls that would be part mentor program, part college readiness program and part fun time with friends. From that idea, Princess Inc. was born.
Word began to spread through girls in the freshman class at Atlantic City High School about a sign-up sheet for the club.
“I had just moved to Atlantic City and didn’t really know anyone,” said Austyn Mingo-Crockett, 18. “I did dance on Saturdays at the Uptown Complex, and one of the friends I met there told me about Princess Inc. and a “bring-a-friend day.”
The now-high school senior never stopped attending the group’s events since bring-a-friend day.
“It was easy to talk to everyone. There was a lot of humor and it wasn’t so serious like everything begins to be in high school. It was relaxing,” Mingo-Crockett said. “You could talk to the adults about anything and feel comfortable about it.”
Owens said they moved the meeting headquarters to her home for a more intimate setting. The meetings are a time for bonding and mentoring, and the rest of the time, the girls are out in Atlantic City volunteering and fundraising.
The group of young women would enjoy a day of new hairdos and facials at the Jolie Health and Beauty Academy, and in turn learn about the job opportunities there, visit nursing homes and volunteer for a communitywide event to give items to those who need in Atlantic City.
Princess Inc. was able to give more than 300 gift bags of necessities donated by area businesses and organizations such as deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrushes to those who needed them at Brown’s Park for their initiative called #hashtaglunchbagac.
But the organization is first and foremost a teen-mentoring program.
According to Mingo-Crockett, Owens and Bennett’s influence had a direct impact on her life.
“When I first met Miss Indra and Automne, I was defensive. They always wondered why, and I told them I was bullied, and whenever I feel I’m being yelled at, I defend myself,” Mingo-Crockett said. “They knew how to talk to me after that.”
Mingo-Crockett said she wasn’t crazy about moving to Atlantic City, and her grades suffered drastically as a result. The group helped her focus and grow, she said.
The soon-to-graduate Mingo-Crockett has applied to more than 25 colleges and has narrowed her top choices to La Salle University in Philadelphia and Hampton University in Virginia. She would have a near full-ride scholarship waiting for her at La Salle.
Owens said while Bennett handles the organization’s finances, Princess Inc. gave close to $3,000 in scholarships and has given other awards to help students get the tools they need, such as MacBook laptops.
“We’re accepting nominations for the ‘give back’ program where the girls will have the opportunity to go to college for free if they’re eligible and complete all the requirements,” Owens said. “For our spring recruitment, girls must be juniors and seniors for the College Trippin series we now do in the fall.”
Since the group has hit the milestone of most of the original members going off to college, Owens and Bennett hope to refresh the membership of new 13- and 14-year-old girls in the area.
Thousands of dollars have been given to the organization by other South Jersey businesses to be used for the Princess Inc. college trips and other scholarships. It is the donations of the community to which Owens credits their success.
With influence from the group, Anaiyah Barker, 17, will graduate from Oakcrest High School in a few months — one year early.
She said a weekend retreat held at Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway Township was a way to make connections with some of the next generation princesses, since Owens and Bennett have a no-cell-phone policy. She said not being connected to social media for the weekend helped the crew bond face-to-face without devices.
Princess Inc. inspired Barker to start her own mentoring group called Beauty and Brains for even younger girls, ages 8 to 14.
“I wanted to pay it forward. There are even younger girls out here that need help, too,” Barker said. “I had forms for them to sign for field trips and I held a sleepover.”
Barker is heading to North Carolina A&T to major in business, which she hopes to own her own soon after. Barker credits her inspiration to Princess Inc.
“Princess, Inc. has shaped me to become this phenomenal woman,” Barker said.