OMAHA -- A young Dorothy Rodham rode a train to her grandparents' house in California after being  abandoned by her parents.

Chelsea Clinton’s grandmother later picked oranges in southern California during the Great Depression.

Despite the odds, she graduated from high school, and, when she was well into her 60s, finished college.

On Friday, Clinton encouraged the girls and young women in an Omaha audience of 950 to persevere.

“Because it’s not only about helping girls deal with often completely unfair and unimaginable circumstances in the world today or in their pasts,” she said, “but also helping them participate fully in our country.”

Clinton, 33, joined past guest speakers, including her parents, President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; first lady Michelle Obama; Warren Buffett; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the annual Lunch for the Girls event, a fundraiser for the Omaha chapter of Girls Inc.

The national nonprofit, which focuses on programming for at-risk girls, wants girls to be “strong, smart and bold.”

Girls Inc. alum Lauren Swadener recently graduated with a master’s degree in civil engineering.

Destiny Juber said girls in foster care think they aren’t normal or smart, but she learned through Girls Inc. that she had skills and could be an engineer if she wanted.

Eight-year-old Fatima Ibrahim, who introduced Clinton, said she could not read before she started hanging out at Girls Inc. Now she can read chapter books.

But there is still work to be done if women are to advance in the so-called STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- and live up to the vision of her grandmother and mother, Clinton said.

Girls are falling behind, she said, noting women comprised 16 percent of computer sciences graduates last year. That percentage has dropped since 1996, when she sent her first email, she said.

“We need girls participating 100 percent in every field, in every aspect,” Clinton said. “And also still feeling like they can be girls.”

Girls collaborate, create and communicate differently from boys, Clinton said, and it’s important to listen.

“We need everyone. We need every girl. We need every boy. We need every idea. We particularly need young people. And we particularly need girls.”

After her speech, Clinton sat down with Makayla Bell and Mychael Shields. “What do you learn at Girls Inc. that you don’t learn at school?” she asked them.

“At school, a lot of times it’s more like, ‘Write this essay about this book because this author is an amazing person,’” Bell said. “At Girls Inc., it’s more like, ‘Write this paper about yourself because you’re an amazing person.’”

Reach Jourdyn Kaarre at 402-473-2655 or jkaarre@journalstar.com.