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Lakewood Nonprofit Teaches Girls to Soar Past Gender Stereotypes

Lynda Meeks started Girls With Wings to get more girls interested in aviation.

Lynda Meeks is a member of the 6.7 percent.

According to statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration, out of 627,588 certified pilots in the United States, 42,218 are women – about 6.7 percent.

Their certificates are even called “Women Airmen Certificates.”

“After almost 100 years of professional pilots in aviation, we’re still just at 6 percent,” Meeks said. “And that’s just not right.”

In 2005, Meeks started Girls With Wings, a nonprofit organization based in Lakewood, to chip away at pilot patriarchy in part by giving hour-long, high-energy and interactive presentations to girls in elementary and middle school that teach them “anything and everything they need to know to be a pilot.”

“Research shows that if you don’t let a girl know her what her opportunities are early, then by the time they start looking for colleges and declaring majors, it’s too late,” Meeks said. “So our goal with the presentation is to be that first introduction.”

At the beginning of the presentations, Meeks said many of the girls are skeptical, claiming that being a pilot is “a boy’s job.”

But after Meeks, who has piloted planes for the Army National Guard, commercial airlines and private business jets for 19 years, tells the girls about other women pilots and a few tricks of the trade, the spirits change.

“I say ‘Remember when you said you’d never be able to learn all those things? Didn’t you do it? You can do anything you want to do in life, as long as you’re willing to work for it,’” she said. “It may be half of the girls, or just a few from the group, but I can see it in their eyes that they truly got that message.”

Meeks, 43, was born in Park Ridge, IL, near Chicago, and cut her teeth in aviation when she joined the Army ROTC at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“They told me aviation was the hardest branch to get into,” she said. “And I’m the kind of personality that, if you tell me I can’t do something, then that’s exactly what I want to do.”

Meeks moved to Lakewood when she took a job at the Cuyahoga County Airport in 2002. She’s since been furloughed, and is currently a flight instructor at Medina County Airport.

To actually get girls flying, Meeks started a yearly scholarship program in 2007, awarding at least one $1,000 scholarship for flight lessons to a girl at least 16 years old.

It seems to be working.

The inaugural winner, Brenda Alarcon, just received her B.A. in aviation operations from San Jose State University.

“This is by far the biggest accomplishment of my life,” Alarcon said.

Meeks said getting girls like Alarcon interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be pivotal to the aviation industry if it’s going to continue growing, but at the end of the day, it’s not all about pilots.

“Even if we just get them to consider something that’s just a little bit different, then we’ve done our job,” she said.

And it doesn’t hurt that it’s extremely empowering, Alarcon said.

“I no longer have to tag along with one of the boys” to go flying, Alarcon said.

As the organization continues to grow, Meeks’ paycheck has remained steady – at $0. She is training women aviators around the country to give the presentations on her behalf, and hopes Girls With Wings will soon become a national nonprofit organization.

“I started this, and I’m going to see it through to the end,” she said. “I’m just going to keep doing everything I can, and continue to enjoy it.”

(Editor's Note: This article is being featured on Huffington Post as part of its Greatest Person of the Day series.)

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