Local News Making a Difference West Edition

Tilly’s Life Center gives kids empowerment tools

There is a sense of calm when you talk to Tilly Levine. She has a peaceful spirit. Somehow, listening to her, you just know everything is going to be all right.

Her positivity and uplifting banter are genuine. She is a glass half full kind of person whose zest for life is infectious.

“I truly believe that my attitude and positive mindset is what got me to where I am today,” said Levine, who immigrated to the United States from Israel 40 years ago and now lives in Dana Point. “We are all going to be OK. We all have to get back to being connected to family and humanity. There are things well beyond money and power that we should be focusing on — like the well-being of our children.”

It’s easy to see why her program, Tilly’s Life Center, is so popular among young people.

Since 2012, Tilly’s Life Center, a nonprofit educational empowerment program that helps teens cope with a crisis, overcome the pressures they face every day and unlock the best within themselves, has impacted more than 7,000 students. The program, with target outcomes like resilience, coping with stress, mindfulness, self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and executive functions began in a Boys and Girls Club in San Juan Capistrano.

Some of the realities that fuel the organization’s mission are the staggering rates of suicide, anxiety, depression and school violence. Tilly’s Life Center addresses each one.

Levine, 64, founder of Tilly’s Life Center, is dedicated to inspiring today’s youth to reach their full potential as productive, kind, happy and responsible individuals.

She and her colleagues accomplish that through an innovative program that utilizes experiential learning, which includes journal writing, open discussions and other activities to engage students in a safe and caring environment.

Facilitators go to schools, shelters, hospitals and juvenile halls to administer a curriculum-based program to kids mostly between the ages of 12 and 18 that includes discussions on bullying, eating disorders, self-esteem, forgiveness, acceptance, drugs, peer pressure, art and plays. This year, Levine is expecting about 3,000 kids to participate.

“We’re giving kids tools on how to actually be aware of who they are, and to understand their feelings,” said Levine, who talks to you like you’ve always been lifelong friends. “Within the school system, these are elective courses. We’re teaching kids how to switch a negative to a positive. 

“The minute you talk about it, it’s not a problem. How do we learn to not make something a problem? We look at our emotions and our behaviors. We want the kids to understand that they can make different choices. They can build up their self-confidence. They learn to accept themselves. It’s very intense social and emotional learning that is designed to work during a time when kids’ brains are developing.”

Tilly’s Life Center’s courses are led by trained facilitators in classes with a maximum size of 15.

Levine said she wished a program like hers was mandatory in schools.

“I wish, I wish,” she said. “The kids are starving for this material. They want more. This is important. It’s the essence of life.”

Now that schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Tilly’s Life Center will take place virtually for one hour a day.

“Many of our kids wanted the program to continue, so they will be able to sign up to do it virtually,” Levine said. “We’re in the midst of creating a classroom online.”

The curriculum is comprised of three phases of 12 courses that meet once a week for 90 minutes, making up an entire academic school year.

One of the phases has the participants evaluate themselves by asking who am I?  How do I feel about life? They then identify what’s negative while they learn how to change a negative to a positive. 

There are also classes with titles like: ‘I Am Me,’ ‘I’m authentic,’ ‘I’m OK,’ ‘I’m Healthy,’ and ‘I’m on the right path.”

The ‘I Am Me’ after school program is taught in public and private schools and as workshops through Central Juvenile Hall, Operation Progress, Big Brothers Big Sisters and youth centers. ‘I Am Me’ is in schools in Orange County, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Levine hopes the program will soon be adopted in all local schools, giving the opportunity to change as many lives as possible. According to Levine, for the last four or five years, the program has been running at UC Irvine.

There is a nominal fee associated with Tilly’s Life Center. Those who do private courses are subsidized. The cost of 12 classes is $120 or $10 per class.

“The cost is symbolic,” Levine said. “The schools are paying as much as they can. We get grants. It costs about $750 per student a year for them to participate in the classes. We do get some sponsors. We try to do what we can. Some kids pay the full amount, while some pay a partial fee and some attend for free.”

Tilly Levine, best known for her 230 Tilly’s Clothing Stores, considers Tilly’s Life Center her life’s work. It’s important for her to leave the world better than she found it.

“With our stores, we have a strong legacy of helping the community,” Levine said. “We have a responsibility. For seven years we helped four teenage foster homes. We raised $1 million for them.”

Levine realized she wasn’t doing enough.

“They would just go home and their issues would start all over again,” she said. “I felt we needed to do something else to help them change their attitude and help themselves. I’m trying to prevent a crisis with our youth. It’s not up to someone else to do it. It’s up to all of us.”

Levine has a long history of community involvement. An entrepreneur with 30 years of experience as vice president and director of Tilly’s, a leading specialty retailer in the action sports industry, Levine, who co-founded the company with her first husband, Hezy Shaked, has used her business acumen to create a number of programs for disadvantaged youth.

In 1982, the couple founded World of Jeans & Tops, which eventually became Tilly’s. In addition to founding Tilly’s Life Center in 2012, Levine has sponsored The Tilly’s Charity Golf Tournament, benefitting a number of children’s organizations, and established Tilly’s Baby Homes, which utilizes an innovative approach to maintain family unity for newborns and infants who are removed from their home.

Levine admits she didn’t do it all by herself. She credits Shaked, the chairman of Tilly’s and Ed Thomas, president/CEO, Tilly’s Inc. with helping to make Tilly’s a success.

The children aren’t the only ones learning about themselves. Since becoming a philanthropist, Levine said she, too, has learned more about who she is.

“I know I’m very blessed and grateful that I was able to do this,” said Levine who likes to travel, hike, snowboard, golf and folk dance. “This was my destiny. It’s why I came into the world. I have the resources to help the youth. I feel I’m doing what I am supposed to do.”

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer