As a little girl growing up in a single-parent household, Ebony Hilton ’04 thought that a career as a doctor seemed like a faraway dream. Now, as the first black female anesthesiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, the accomplished physician teaches other young girls to pursue their passions.

They arrived bubbly and cheerful, each plopping down into chairs spread around a conference table. The girls sported funky shoes, pink and tie-dyed footwear that anyone outside of middle school would have trouble pulling off. They wore identical shirts, too, each of which read “GLOSS” across the chest, an acronym meaning Girls Loving OurSelves Successfully. Predictably, the T-shirts were pink.

Joining these 10 seventh-graders at James Simons School on upper King Street were a handful of mentors, including Ebony Hilton ’04. The women and girls began to chat, laughing together and then oohing and aahing when one student shared the contents of her Me Bag, which included goodies and mementos such as a basketball jersey, honor roll awards, trophies and old family photos.

And that’s what the GLOSS program is all about – helping girls feel connected and confident amid the blur of adolescence. GLOSS aims to empower middle school girls as they grapple with the growing stresses of peer pressure, family life and academics.

Hilton remembers all too well what a strange time those years can be.

Actions Matter — As the girls chatted away, their adult counterparts directed them to their first group activity. Mentor Florence Davis asked each girl to squeeze a glob of toothpaste on a plate before being told to place it back in the tube by using a toothpick. If the girls didn’t know it beforehand, they soon found out: it was a hopeless task. With this smart group, little explanation was needed for them to decode the larger lesson: be careful how you act, since some things are not easily undone.

Then came singing and spontaneous dancing, with much laughter when Principal (and mentor) Quenetta White needed help translating hip-hop lyrics. But then, as conversation continued, the mood shifted, with smiles soon giving way to tears. Leaving the fun and games behind, Hilton and the other mentors had asked the girls to share stories from their lives, to tell the group of any struggles they had experienced. One student broke down when talking about a sick family member, fearing he might die. As the girl sobbed, Hilton held her hand and soothed her.

“It’s natural to have emotions,” Hilton told the group. “It’s natural to feel weak.”

But the tears were just beginning. Other girls jumped in, one by one, each revealing well-concealed inner turmoil. Hilton stood up from her seat to give hugs as they shared story after story, each more gut-wrenching than the last. The girls told tales of health emergencies, severe family dysfunction and estrangement, relatives’ suicidal tendencies, gun violence and more.

“It’s just a lot of stuff right now,” understated one seventh-grader.

The stories continued. Tears kept falling. Tissue after tissue was grabbed. Many of the girls admitted that they kept their emotions bottled, not wanting to exacerbate the challenges they faced by weeping to family members. Hilton and the other mentors urged them to rethink this strategy.

“It’s not your responsibility to hold up the family,” Hilton told the young women. “It can make you physically sick to hold in all these emotions.”

When the stories and tears ceased, it was time to go – school was over for the day. The girls and mentors traded phone numbers and vowed to start a GLOSS Facebook page. Before the room cleared, Hilton offered one last piece of advice: “You should never feel like no one has your back or no one hears your voice.”

If anyone knows the importance of those words, it’s Hilton. Once upon a time, Dr. Ebony J. Hilton was one of those girls…

Read the full story about Ebony Hilton in the summer 2016 issue of the College of Charleston Magazine.