Carson High School senior Madison Reilly Anderson considers seventh and eighth grades the worst years of her life.
“People started rumors about me,” she said. “I was excluded from a lot of groups and made fun of at lunch.
“I remember coming home and locking myself in my room and crying.”
At her lowest point, Anderson considered suicide.
She eventually made it through the rough patch, thanks to an unlikely friend.
A girl Anderson had brushed away reached out to her in a letter.
“I realized what I was worth,” she said. “It was amazing because I wasn't the nicest person to her.
“That's when things started to change for me.”
Now, Anderson is anything but depressed.
A cheerleader and active member of First United Methodist Church in China Grove, Anderson is working to help other girls overcome their own obstacles.
“God gave me the vision to host a weekend to support girls who are going through some of the same things I was,” she said.
She recently held the first Girls for Change mission weekend, inviting girls in sixth through 12th grades to participate.
A total of 36 girls from throughout the south Rowan area participated.
Girls for Change began on Friday, Jan. 11, with the participants arriving at the church.
Anderson said they took part in a live worship service before splitting up into small group sessions to discuss bullying.
Later, they worked on vision boards.
“They cut out pages of magazines that symbolized who they wanted to be through God,” Anderson said. “We ended up having a dance party until we went to bed.”
The next day, the girls split into four groups and did mission projects throughout the area.
“We touched a lot of lives that weekend,” Anderson said.
One group worked on a house in Salisbury, pulling up carpet and preparing the room for new flooring, replacing windows and painting.
Heritage Plantation, an assisted living facility in Salisbury, received a visit from another group.
“There they played Bingo with the residents, created arts and crafts, sang to them and in the afternoon updated their prayer garden made a year or so ago by our youth group,” said Hope Oliphant, the church's director of children and youth ministries.
Several of the girls led a prayer walk through China Grove, stopping to pray for local businesses and residents.
“I ran into one of the local business owners at the grocery store, and she said they wish that would happen more often because they felt so blessed to have the girls come in and pray for them,” said Tiffany Reilly, Anderson's mother.
The group ended up at Main Street Mission, where they spent several hours sorting items for those in need.
Another group of girls traveled to Charlotte to volunteer at the Ronald McDonald house.
They spent the morning cleaning the hospitality house and the afternoon baking cookies for families who stay there.
The girls returned to the church for dinner after their day of mission work.
A candlelight ceremony was held in the sanctuary following dinner, giving them an opportunity to share their experiences.
“It was one of the most beautiful moments of the whole weekend,” Reilly said.
Anderson shared her own story of bullying during the ceremony.
“Through my faith, I was strong enough to share it,” she said. “They needed to hear it to know they are not alone.”
Oliphant said Anderson's words were powerful.
“She wanted (the girls) to know that God sees them as beautiful and precious and that through him they can be changed and through his light they can also give hope and bring about change for others in difficult situations,” she said.
Anderson said she hopes the girls who attended the retreat carry the lessons they learned with them.
“I want them to remember the feeling that God is with them,” she said. “And that they can be the change and the light.
“I want them to know they are beautiful in every single way, and because they are beautiful in Christ, they don't have to be fake.”
Reilly said the weekend also taught the girls not to judge others.
“These girls were overwhelmed with the love they received and were shown acceptance,” she said. “I hope they remember that.”
Anderson said she didn't have a strong faith until after her father died when she was in the eighth grade.
“I had a really, really hard time with that,” she said. “I asked God to let me know he was OK, and he gave me the comfort I needed.
“That's when my faith blossomed.”
Anderson said she couldn't have pulled the event off without help from many fellow church members and friends.
She hopes to host another Girls for Change mission weekend in the future.
“I have had girls people come to me asking about next year and sharing ideas,” Anderson said. “It is so exciting to see that young teenagers have taken to the weekend and have devoted themselves to making a difference not only in themselves, but also in the community.”
Reilly said she's proud of the work her daughter is doing.
“It is difficult to sit and hear her rekindle all the emotions and hurt she went through,” she said. “But watching her turn it into something positive that inspires others is awesome.
“I'm just happy that God has chosen to work through her.”
Contact Lifestyle editor Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.