Davinia James, a pre-school teacher in Maryland, knows that epic journeys begin with a first step and a fortune can grow from a single cent. James’ own journey has been extraordinary, and today she is raising a small fortune for girls, one penny at a time.

Davinia is a Girl Rising ambassador – and, for her, it’s not just a good cause: it’s personal. “I AM a girl rising!” Davinia says. “I know what it’s like to have that burning feeling inside, which pushes you to become a better you, no matter the consequences.”

Born in Jamaica, Davinia James became seriously ill as a newborn. Her mother, already raising two sons, was unable to care for her ailing daughter and turned to a family friend for help. Thus, James was raised in a loving family, though not her own. She was sustained by visits from her mother who, though forced to move away in search of employment, regularly visited, making a point to instill the importance of education in her daughter from an early age.

James dreamed of the day she would be reunited with her mother, but it came under the tragic circumstance of the death of her benefactor. The 11-year old Davinia found herself on what she calls “the grisly side,” of Jamaica, surrounded by violence and poverty and far from the island beauty she had inhabited. At 12, her mother had to move once again, to the United States, leaving her daughter with an aunt. Missing her terribly, Davinia threw herself into schoolwork, knowing how important it was to her mother, who attended high school but never graduated. “Not having my mom around was pretty hard,” she said, adding, “I managed to stay focused because I wanted to become more than what she had accomplished. I wanted to become more than a statistic.”

Davinia fought to reach her goal. When she learned her mother was battling breast cancer an ocean away, she fought harder. After graduating from high school, she finally joined her mom in the U.S., more resolved than ever to grant her mother’s greatest wish, of seeing her daughter off to college. Against all odds, that wish came true. Davinia began university studies, even as her mother continued to fight the cancer that would claim her life within two short years of their reunion. It was a setback. “I so wanted to just give up on everything,” Davinia remembers. But she persevered, and reached her graduation day surrounded by supporters and newly determined to become a social activist. “At age 24, I walked across a podium with screams and cheers,” she proudly recalls, “At age 25, I started fighting for things I believe in!”

Today, Davinia James is a teacher, a Girl Rising ambassador, a crusader against breast cancer and an inspiration. She identifies with the girls of Girl Rising, knowing too well the hardships and barriers girls can face, and also knowing first hand that education can make all the difference. Her spirit and enthusiasm bubble forth when she writes on the subject:

There is no doubt that educating our girls provides them with innovation, prosperity, opportunity and the chance to change the world! Unconvinced??? Just look at me!!! I’m the living proof of that!!! 

Now, James is bringing her passion into her own classroom, teaching 4-year-olds that you’re never too young to make a difference. For International Day of the Girl, her students held a penny drive, filling a large pretzel jar within a week. For her own 28th birthday, our ambassador took it one giant step further. “I wanted to give the world a gift from me,” she said. “I asked family, friends, companies and strangers to help me raise $28,000 to send 560 girls to school in developing countries.” It turns out that goal was mere pennies. To date, James has collected more than 500,000 little copper coins and is still counting!

When asked why she works so tirelessly for the Girl Rising movement, Davinia James replies, “I only have one answer. Girls are valuable! Girls are worth it! Education gives us freedom.” Then she repeats the saying that has become something of a mantra for this young activist who is constantly enlisting others to the causes so dear to her: It’s time for the world to sit down and listen, then stand up and speak!