As a Military kid, Janiyah S. knows firsthand the challenges of uprooting, adapting and trying to find yourself along the way. But with the support of her Boys & Girls Clubs of America-affiliated Military Youth Center, she’s not only been able to embrace her true self but encourage her peers to find acceptance and belonging, too.
Like many Military kids, I’ve bounced around between different countries, different schools and different cultures. I got used to reintroducing myself over and over while simultaneously trying to figure out who I even wanted to be. And I’ll admit that for a long time, I tried to define myself with qualities that weren’t truly me, but of my environment just so I could fit in.
But when my family was stationed in Germany, something changed in me and I said to myself, “You know what? I'm tired of doing this. Let me just be my authentic self.”
And with that leap of faith, something incredible happened: I became the leader I always knew I could be but had been too afraid to try before.
When you’ve moved around as much as I have, you quickly learn that the most important part of navigating change is finding the support systems you need. I’m fortunate to have a great support system within my parents. But when I met the staff at the Baumholder Youth Services Teen Center, I finally found a support system rooted in love and acceptance outside of my family.
Everything changed for me at the Teen Center. I was able to meet new people, build coping skills, hear stories of others overcoming adversity and grow as a leader — all while being celebrated for my authentic self.
I know what it’s like to go on a journey to discover and embrace exactly who you are, and because of that, my mentors at the Teen Center encouraged me to support my peers on their journeys, as well.
As president of our teen community leadership program, the Keystone Club, I helped members realize what giving back to their communities meant to them. I also supported girls in recognizing their own self-worth as a youth coordinator of our SMART Girls program. Together, we had honest conversations about the issues many of us deal with every day — like peer pressure, body image and maintaining healthy relationships — and were able to find strength and solidarity in one another.
Both of those programs were available to us through the Military’s partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America. I loved being part of a greater support system for my peers as they pieced together their own unique identities. And along the way, I grew stronger as a leader, gaining the confidence to go after and achieve the honor of being named the 2022-23 Northeast Military Youth of the Year for BGCA.
Because I was able to overcome my own roadblocks to be a leader, I’m very passionate about helping others realize their strengths, too. So, when I saw the opportunity to create more spaces for self-discovery at my school, I decided to start some of my own afterschool clubs inspired by Boys & Girls Club programming.
The first club I founded was called Now Accepting Not Impressing (N.A.N.I), which encourages kids to simply be who they are. Initially, it started as a female empowerment group, but then I realized how our mission spoke to a much larger audience.
When we opened the group to include non-binary kids, I found myself questioning my identity even more. None of the labels felt right to me, so I decided that I didn’t need to have one, I could just identify as me.
That’s why it’s so important to foster an understanding and acceptance of others because your own journey of self-discovery never really stops.
I’ve since joined my student council and helped establish my school’s LGBTQ+ club. I’ve also been able to find my tribe through outside influences. While my favorite singer Kehlani doesn’t know that I exist, I absolutely love how she owns who she is and is not afraid to show it. She is a huge inspiration for me when it comes to being a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Making the effort to understand others has helped ignite a fire in me, a fire that will not be dying out anytime soon. I consider myself an advocate and any time I see people who are struggling, I'm going to do something about it. Because at the end of the day, regardless of the laws and regulations that are passed, we are people. No matter how someone may identify or how they express their sexual orientation, we should have respect and love for each other.
There was a point in time when I didn't have what I needed to thrive as my true self, and I don't want anyone else to go through that. I want people to have support systems. I want love in the world.
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