By People Staff
August 14, 2006 12:00 PM

She has graced the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s swimsuit issue three times, runs her own $1 billion clothing-and-furniture line and is the happily married mother of three. Yet, speaking at Long Beach City College on July 29, Kathy Ireland, 41, recounted the hurdles she faced along the way. “When I started my business, I was told I wasn’t smart enough,” Ireland said. “But you have to believe in yourself.”

Words to live by, especially for the 50 new mothers—unmarried and mostly in their teens—who were there as part of the L.A.-based Kathy Ireland Mentor Program for Single Teen Mothers. Since starting the program in 1990, Ireland has matched some 500 girls with female mentors, who meet with the girls at least four times a year and phone regularly to offer advice on everything from going back to school to ending an abusive relationship. (Each pair signs a contract to keep in touch for a year.)

Ireland—who this year awarded each girl a $500 scholarship for school costs—says her Christian faith fuels her desire to help: “I believe we are all God’s children.” One young woman Ireland has guided is Christina Perez, 23, who met Ireland four years ago when Perez was a high school dropout and unmarried mom. Today Perez is a married mother of three, studying for her GED and working part-time. “We all have value,” she says. “Kathy taught me that.”