Many people can claim they want to change the world one day. But not many of them have the blueprints for success in their communities.
And very few of them, like Sophia Vernon, are 17 years old.
Vernon, a senior at Buchholz High School, is the founder of BEING-Inner Value, LLC, a Gainesville-based nonprofit aimed at helping young women affirm their inner value, develop confidence in their bodies and selves and deny seeking external validation in how they look or what others think of them.
In February, Vernon applied for a program called ReThink Service, a 12-week virtual mentorship program created in partnership with the Greater Gainesville Chamber of Commerce that called local high school students to create a service project.
A no-brainer for the service-minded, three-year member of Buchholz’s Key Club and a 10-year Girl Scout, Vernon was ready to take on changemaking that would be her own.
That’s how BEING came to be, but it wasn’t inspired without personal experience.
Vernon accredits her own body image struggles and those of friends and family as a key motivator to change the status quo and play a part of rethinking the female experience.
“I decided to make a change to really unlearn everything I’ve been taught about femininity,” Vernon said.
After setting up an official email account and website, Vernon contacted just about anyone she could to get the community involved in her brainchild. She messaged counselors, doctor’s offices, dentists and community leaders with an invitation to the BEING team.
Vernon spent hours making T-shirts and signs, thanks to a $500 grant to aid with her event’s costs. She interacted with organizations such as Peaceful Pads, UF HealthStreet, Patticakes and Cruz Davis Family Dentistry.
Two months later, Vernon and BEING were ready for their public debut. April 30 marked the inaugural BEING Bash, a festival hosted at the Magnolia Parke business center located on Northwest 39th Avenue.
A diverse range of vendors came to support BEING and offer resources. Aby Deal—founder of an organization similar to BEING, Curvy Confidence, and a popular plus-size local influencer—served as a guest speaker.
“It was really beautiful seeing all these people who were as excited about the mission as I was,” Vernon said.
One BEING Bash attendee and organizer was very close to home for Sophia. Her mother, Heddy Vernon, remembers the assembly-line sessions they had at home in the living room making those t-shirts.
“I love supporting it and spending time with her and then seeing the results,” the elder Vernon said.
“I feel I have, in many ways, learned from Sophia with what she’s learning and sharing.”
With a daughter like Sophia constantly innovating and thinking of new ways to serve the public, a natural mentorship emerged between mother and daughter. A woman of service herself, Heddy serves as membership manager for the Jacksonville-based Girl Scouts of Gateway Council.
Heddy describes Sophia as someone who doesn’t leave her conscientiousness at the front door of their home.
“She’s super in-tune with everybody’s feelings,” Heddy Vernon said. “When she comes home sometimes, it’s like ‘OK, Mom’s feeling a little tired, so I’m just going to jump in and do the dishes.’”
Whether the pair is going on road trips and analyzing audio books or having a conversation at the breakfast table, that bond is evident in what BEING has become.
With BEING Bash now in the rearview mirror, Sophia has extended BEING’s footprint to become more regular. BEING hosts free monthly workshops in the greater Gainesville area that explore a unique topic in embracing inner value and confidence.
September’s workshop had attendees make and take home their own menstrual care kits and face masks. In August, BEING hosted back-to-school yoga, taught by the H.E.A.T. Center of Gainesville, Inc. Santa Fe College’s police department presented July’s self-defense for young women workshop.
BEING also has a presence in Buchholz’s halls now. The new chapter of the organization, open to all students, has more than 15 members now, and Vernon gives interactive seminars on a variety of topics.
“Now, if I see one of the BEING members in the hallway, I can smile at them, give them a wave, and ask how their day was,” Vernon said.
BEING’s Instagram page posts daily affirmational messages produced by Vernon and the BEING club’s officers. Vernon recruited her team out of a necessity to grow, but also out of necessity to keep going when the senior graduates in the spring.
“I’m graduating next year, so I really want this to be sustainable after I leave,” Vernon said.
Eowyn Verhaeren, a Buchholz junior and BEING’s vice president, had known Vernon since the former was in eighth grade and the latter in ninth, interacting mostly in Buchholz’s drama club, where Verhaeren serves vice president.
Herself at times struggling with some of the very body positivity and confidence issues BEING works to eradicate, Verhaeren made an easy decision to join when Vernon was recruiting her.
“I was always searching for that kind of club, that kind of environment, those kinds of people to be around with such positive energy,” Verhaeren said.
“I just love the positivity that BEING brings because it puts us away from societal expectations of what a body should look like.”
Verhaeren emphasized the creative flow the duo has, even to the point of bouncing ideas off each other at 2 a.m. at a sleepover at one of their houses. She credits BEING’s impact for aiding her growth process as she’s blossomed into one of the company’s leaders.
“That’s been a really long journey of self-acceptance and self-love, and I feel like BEING has really guided me toward that,” Verhaeren said.
What’s next for BEING? That’s where the Taco Bell Foundation comes in.
Over the summer, with BEING still in its infancy, Vernon and her BEING team joined nearly 300 applicants for the restaurant chain’s inaugural Ambition Accelerator program, a competition open to people age 16 to 26 to present their ideas for changemaking.
The process was a necessary editing check on the young company’s manifesto, asking about its values, mission and team.
In September, Taco Bell selected BEING as one of the top 25 proposals, meaning BEING will receive a total of $1,500 of seed funding and a chance to win an additional $25,000 at the program’s summit, a three-day, all expenses paid trip to Taco Bell’s headquarters in Irvine, California, where teams of young people from across the country can network and grow their ideas.
Verhaeren was recruited to BEING’s team only a week before the announcement came out, but now, she and Vernon will both catch a plane to the west coast next week to share BEING with the world.
Danielle Karnbach, a representative with the communications team behind the project, wrote this about BEING in an email:
“BEING celebrates young women as they are, helping them embrace their inner worth and build healthy relationships with their peers, their bodies and their achievements. Taco Bell, the Taco Bell Foundation and Ashoka are honored to support Sophia’s efforts in furthering this program.”
Whether in California or Gainesville, BEING has come to be out of both personal triumph and personal struggle. Knowing that the recently named National Merit Semifinalist will be gone from Buchholz—and perhaps Florida—in a matter of months, Vernon is still confident in BEING’s legacy in her eventual absence, the grassroots now sprouting greener than ever.
“I hope we have a community where young women can define their own success, to find their own value and be able to talk about it with other young women,” Vernon said.
Sacrificing or modifying other passions like theater was a part of the payoff to get BEING where it is today.
“That’s been a huge struggle for me,” Vernon said. “Six months of having to realize if I want to take on this new thing of starting an organization, I have to let other things go.”
But, as she teaches her BEING audience, when one door closes, another can open, and one can only be truly themselves when they reflect on their inner value.
“Quitting can be an opportunity. It can be the start of something. It doesn’t always have to be the end.”