Rhonda Walker doesn’t believe in breaks. But it was on a rare break from work nearly two decades ago that Walker, then a budding television personality, would lay the groundwork for a passion project that has since changed the lives of thousands of inner-city girls.
It was 2002 and Walker, who’d spent the past four years at Fox-2 News doing double duty as a traffic reporter and weather caster had just accepted a new role as a full-time news anchor at Channel 4. In earning the role at Channel 4, Walker says, “I achieved something that I had dreamed of, and I felt like that gift to do this job in Detroit — the city that I was born in — was a blessing. And with blessings, there’s an expectation from God that you pay it forward.”
Walker found herself with six unoccupied months between the two network jobs but her indomitable nature would not allow her to sit complacent. Instead, she sought to fill her time doing something she’d grown to love in her role as a television personality:
“As soon as I started working in television, I immediately got all of these requests to be a speaker,” Walker says. That exposed her to the nonprofit world in Detroit. She’d grown especially fond of visiting schools, where she’d speak before groups of students in the most impressionable stages of their lives. “My visits to schools were what I absolutely loved,” she says. “Spending time with kids helps to give them hope. It helps to put a face to what they can dream and aspire to.” In her newfound spare time, Walker would visit middle schools across Detroit, preaching messages of self-love and leadership. “I did that because in my own life I felt like that was the most pivotal time. My thought process was to arm them with this armor to prepare them to be successful in high school.”
But it was one young girl in particular who would inspire Walker to launch The Rhonda Walker Foundation, a mentorship program for teen girls founded in 2003. “During one of my middel school visits, one of the girls came up to me and asked, ‘How am I supposed to do that when everyone around me is discouraging me?’ She explained that no one in her family had gone to college and worked hourly jobs, and I could tell that she wanted more for her life but couldn’t figure out how that was possible when everyone was
putting her down.”
It was a moment of enlightenment for Walker. “That one conversation with that child allowed me to understand that I’m not going to be able to truly help someone like her by visiting her school one time. That if I really wanted to make a difference and help kids like her to really believe that they can succeed, I needed to make more of a commitment to their lives.”
“My philosophy has always been anything is possible, and I really try to instill that in the girls in the foundation.” – Rhonda Walker
A goal of The Rhonda Walker Foundation is to foster in girls the same tenacity that Walker embodied those 20-some-odd years ago. “I never subscribe to anybody’s limitations for my life,” she says. “My philosophy has always been anything is possible, and I really try to instill that in the girls in the foundation.”
Another tenet of the program: Be fearless. “What I’ve always tried to instill in these girls is that you can approach anybody. Part of our motto for the foundation is ‘RWF’: ‘Respect myself and others’ is the ‘R,’ ‘W’ is ‘Walk with confidence,’ and ‘F’ is ‘Fearless and faithful.’ What I tell them about fearlessness is that it does not mean that you’re not afraid, but that you have to approach all situations being fearless, thinking, ‘Even though I’m terrified, I’m going to do it anyway.’ ”
In 2020, The Rhonda Walker Foundation goes into its 17th year celebrating some of its biggest accomplishments to date. The organization launched an after-school program in five middle schools, which Walker says is a monumental feat. “Being school-based allows us to serve more kids.”
The foundation, which has now graduated 13 classes, has also welcomed four new employees, including Ruselda Villanueva Johnson as CEO. “The first 10 years of the organization, I functioned as the executive director and we didn’t have any paid employees. Everything we did was volunteer-based. I always thought that if we’re paying someone, then that’s money that we won’t be able to use as resources for the kids, but it got to the point where we’ve grown so much that it’s necessary.”
Perhaps these new hires will mean a break for Walker as she hands responsibilities off to her growing team — though that seems unlikely. For Walker, there’s still much to be done before women reach gender equality, and through her work with The Rhonda Walker Foundation, she will continue to do her part to move womankind ahead.
“What we’ve watched in terms of the movement for women is that the world is our oyster,” she says. “I think that the struggle with inequality for women for so many decades has been a slow process, but we’re starting to eat away at it with every passing year. It takes time to undo some of the things that we’ve watched over the years, but the little girls today are really going to blow our minds.”