Lena Welch was 15 when her mom died of cancer, leaving the high school freshman to navigate a grief that many could not understand.
"I had a family who would have given me the world to help support me," Welch, now 20, recalled. "But at the end of the day, I was the only girl I knew who had experienced the loss of their mom and there was a sense of isolation there."
Welch says there are three days that are especially difficult for her and many other women and girls who have lost their moms: Their mom's birthday, the anniversary of her death and Mother's Day.
On the first Mother's Day after her mom's passing, Welch grieved at home with her family, but the following year, a school counselor handed her a flyer for empoweringHER, a non-profit organization holding a retreat on Mother's Day weekend for girls whose mothers had died.
Unsure of what to expect, Welch signed up.
"It changed my outlook on everything," Welch told TODAY Parents. "In high school, if you lose your mom, that becomes what defines you — you become the girl whose mom passed away. But I've learned that's not what defines you, it's your strength and how you handle adversity."
Today, Welch is an intern at empoweringHER, working closely with Cara Belvin, the founder and CEO of the organization.
Belvin, 42, lost her own mom to breast cancer in the '80s, when she was nine years old. The Massachusetts mom of two was struck with the idea for empoweringHER while sitting at her kitchen table a few years ago.
"Growing up, I'd just never met another girl whose mom had died and that was pretty isolating," said Belvin, explaining she started the program to give young girls an opportunity to meet and learn from other girls who had experienced the same devastating loss.
In 2014, seven girls attended an overnight retreat to learn about grief and talk with others like them at Belvin's first empoweringHER event. Today, the organization serves more than 225 girls and women, age 24 or younger, through one-on-one mentorship programs, in-person events, and an annual Mother's Day sleepover, all provided free with the help of financial donations.
In February, empoweringHER opened a second chapter in Southern California. Belvin has deployed groups in cities like Washington, D.C., New York, Dallas and Los Angeles to raise money to start additional chapters.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, Belvin feared she wouldn't be able to hold a Mother's Day retreat.
Instead, they're going bigger than ever before.
Belvin and her team of staff and volunteers are holding a virtual retreat over Mother's Day weekend. Speakers including the founder of Drybar, Alli Webb, and two stars of the Bravo reality show "Vanderpump Rules," Katie Maloney and Dayna Kathan, will talk about topics like female empowerment, mother loss, beauty and skin care and the importance of hard work.
While last year's in-person event hosted 100 girls, the organization's 2020 virtual retreat has doubled in size, with 200 girls signed up to participate throughout the U.S. and in countries like Africa, Italy and Sweden.
"I never wanted anything virtual," Belvin admitted. "I wanted something you could touch and feel ... this was not my mission or my vision, but I am pleasantly surprised and glad I was wrong. We have a tagline that we're one mission with two programs (the retreat and mentorship), but now we've got three programs, and the virtual mission will carry on after this retreat because there are girls who live in areas where something like this simply doesn't exist."
While she isn't sure what the virtual side of the program will look like beyond Mother's Day weekend, Belvin is looking forward to using it to reach more girls and helping them feel less alone in their grief.
Muriel Mena, a 19-year-old who participates in empoweringHER events, lost her mom suddenly when she was 3 years old due to a heart attack. The Massachusetts teen credits the program with helping her become more than "quite literally 'the girl whose mom died.'"
"I lived in a small town," Mena, whose dad remarried when she was 6, explained. "Growing up, everyone knew, but I didn't know anyone else who had lost their mom or really understood."
Mena says attending empoweringHER events helped her realize she could be a support system to younger girls and those struggling with their mom's recent death.
"I lost my mom so young and I felt like I was comfortable talking about things more than the girls who lost their moms more recently were," said Mena, who volunteers along with Welch working with preteen girls in the program.
Belvin says part of her goal in starting empoweringHER was to help more girls speak comfortably about their moms — just like Mena.
"I think I was 18 when I started to understand more about my mom and what it meant for her to have to say goodbye to us — for her to know she was dying and leaving a loving husband and daughter and son," said Belvin. "Growing up, I never spoke to my friends about my mother — not even my closest friends knew. That was pretty isolating, and I want to give girls that life-altering experience of being in a room and knowing you're not the only one powering through your grief."