As a teenager in Nevada, Kristina Fortner graduated as the valedictorian of her high school senior class with a classload of all honors classes.
So she was surprised by the pushback she received from her school’s staff when she told them her aspirations; she wanted to be a marine biologist.
But one teacher actually told her, “’You are not going to be the next Jacques Cousteau,’” she said.
Fortner’s guidance counselor encouraged her to attend state college in Las Vegas, rather than applying to prestigious, private universities, and become a teacher.
With her top grades and bevy of extracurricular activities, “I was thinking, ‘Hey, I can apply anywhere,’” she said. “But they were telling me I couldn’t.”
Looking back on these incidents, this puts her current role as CEO and executive director of Girls Inc. of Pinellas into perspective.
“I dreamed of being a marine biologist or a vet and I see it in the girls here,” she said. “They’re inspired by the same things and we want to keep inspiring them to reach for their goals and do what they want.”
Though Fortner disregarded her guidance counselor’s advice and was accepted into several out-of-state universities, she married her high school sweetheart, who was in the military, and moved to Germany. She lived there for several years, and during this time her oldest daughter was born.
“I don’t regret a minute of it,” she said.
When they returned to the United States, they moved to Arizona, and she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Arizona and later, a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Walden University.
Fortner landed in the non-profit sector, first as a family support specialist and later a program supervisor for Healthy Families Arizona. She was promoted a third time to statewide coordinator of the program.
She relocated to Florida in early 2014 and took the position with Girls, Inc. This was her first position working hands on with school-aged children, and she loves her job, she said.
“It’s such a hopeful place to come to work,” she said. “I come to work and it’s great to see the girls, their smiles and their potential. It’s very exciting.”
A lot has changed at Girls Inc. since she came on board. Right before she was hired, the organization was awarded a $300,000 Community Development Block Grant, which was slated for renovations to the primary buildings.
“It was quite a process working with the county and contractors, and making sure that the center was going to be the way we envisioned it,” Fortner said.
Since then, Girls Inc. has also received several capital improvement grants from the Juvenile Welfare Board.
“The more we pour into that center, the more it’s giving opportunities to our girls,” she added.
Girls Inc. provides low-cost STEM-based summer and after-school programs for girls of all ages. They offer transportation to girls from 20 area schools and also have a partnership with a private transportation company for students from other schools.
The organization also hosts several other events throughout the year. The Father-Daughter Ball, rescheduled after Hurricane Irma hit the area in September, will take place Saturday, nov. 4, 6 to 9 p.m., at the Gulfport Casino.
Fortner has also created a Greet and Eat series that takes place the fourth Wednesday of every month, 12 to 1 p.m. Anyone interested in learning more about Girls, Inc. – from parents to potential volunteers and partners – is welcome, she added. Visitors will enjoy lunch with Girls Inc. and take a tour of the facilities.
“We have a lot of great programming to offer,” Fortner said.
For more information, visit girlsinc-pinellas.org.