When life at home was unstable, Zena and her siblings found safety and support at their Boys & Girls Club. Learn how Zena’s mentors and experiences gave her the strength and skills to fight for her future and pursue a career in family law.
When I was nine, I got a second chance. But the thing about a second chance is that someone must choose to offer it, and you have to choose if you’re going to take it.
Up until then, my life felt fully out of my control. My siblings and I were in need of a second home, a safe haven. After a rough start on my first day at my Boys & Girls Club, I swore that I would never go back — it proved to be the biggest lie I ever told myself! I took my second chance and tried again.
Looking back over a decade later, I can see that the Club was exactly what my family needed. It was the right place, the right people, at the right time. Without it, I doubt that I would be where I am now — fighting to give more kids the chance for a better future, too.
I don’t take safety for granted today because my brother, two sisters and I never had it as kids.
My mom raised us on her own, and when a new man came into her life, we often found he was more likely to hurt us than help us. When I was age eight, my stepfather had issues with alcohol addiction and was physically abusive to my mother, siblings and me. Nobody was safe. We all feared him, but we feared not being able to live on our own even more. After one particularly scary night that ended with me calling the police, my mom, siblings and I moved into a shelter.
As a child, living in that shelter was a dream to me. A safe place. I even had a playground in my backyard. After what we’d been through, everything about it was perfect in my eyes. I never understood the snickering when the bus dropped me off in front of the gates after school.
A year went by, and it was time to move out. That’s when my family moved into a public housing project in Harlingen, Texas. There are more than 250 Boys & Girls Clubs in public housing across the nation and our new home had a Club right in the heart of it. When my siblings and I saw kids playing outside the big blue and white building, we assumed it was a park and decided to check it out.
I was nine years old when I first walked into the Club and got in trouble on my very first day. Back then, I was always on guard and quick to anger. I got into a fight with another kid and spent the next month at home while my siblings continued to go to the Club every day. They told me of all the fun they were having but I stayed stubborn, vowing that I would never set foot in there again.
Until one day when my mom brought me back and we met Hilda, the Club director. My mom told Hilda all about the obstacles our family had been facing. And Hilda, and the Club, gave me a second chance.
After talking to my mom, Hilda had a better understanding of where I was coming from and saw me as someone she could mentor and support.
I began to see coming back to the Club as an opportunity to be a brand new person. I had been feeling angry and anxious for as long as I could remember. But experiencing the kindness that Hilda and my peers so openly showed me at the Club just made me crave that feeling more. I told myself that if this was the way people treated me when I listened, when I followed the rules, when I was nice to others, then that’s exactly what I would do every single day from then on.
I started attending Boys & Girls Clubs of Harlingen daily for the next nine years. Everyone grew to know me and wanted to help me achieve my goals. From the staff to my peers, to the youngest kids, they became my mentors, my friends and my biggest cheering squad.
Hilda in particular was passionate about developing Club kids’ writing and public speaking skills from an early age. Many times, she organized Club competitions where we would write essays or give speeches to a panel of judges made up of alumni from the Club or adults in the community. When I wasn’t participating in (and winning!) those competitions, I was usually writing, reading or drawing.
I also found ways to give back to my community through Keystone Club, our Boys & Girls Club teen leadership development program. My favorite event that we hosted was the annual Thanksgiving Day dinner, where we’d all serve a meal to the public housing community.
As I got older, I realized how much I enjoyed leading activities for the younger kids and looking out for little ones who reminded me of myself on my first day at the Club. Hilda, again, noticed my potential as a leader, and by age 15, I had my first job as a junior staff member at the Club.
The more involved I got at the Club, the more I enjoyed every single second of it and the happiness I felt overflowed into other areas of my life. I became a straight A+ student, president of my high school’s National Honor Society and took dual-enrollment college classes. I was finally on my way to becoming the person I wanted to be, all because I gave the Club a second chance.
My siblings loved their time at the Club, too. My older brother loved to get in the game, whether it was basketball, pool or video games. My quieter middle sister expressed herself through arts and crafts while my youngest sister danced along with other girls to Zumba videos and “Just Dance” video game tournaments. It was truly a place where all of us could have fun in our own ways. Today, all of them are still involved at the Club, with my brother working as a staff member while going to college and my younger sisters still attending as members and occasionally working as scorekeepers in official Club games.
And for me? My favorite part of my Boys & Girls Club was Hilda, the woman who took me under her wing.
While my days at the Boys & Girls Club and at school had gotten brighter, at home our situation was still difficult. My mom is an immigrant whose education was cut short after third grade. My whole life, our family relied on public housing and survived off food stamps.
I was furious at the injustice of my family’s situation, but my Club mentor Hilda always told me to never see myself as a statistic. She told me not to give in to the expectations I thought the world had for someone like me. Hilda believed with all her heart that I would break the cycle of generational poverty in my family. That gave me the confidence to prove her right.
I began using my voice to advocate for my experiences. I spoke at city commission meetings and strengthened my public speaking skills. I wrote my story and shared it with thousands of people on my journey to becoming Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Southwest Youth of the Year in 2021, representing all the kids in my region. I graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA and got scholarships to go to college.
More people believe in me now than ever before (myself included), but one of them got it all started — Hilda. To this day, it’s hard to imagine where I’d be if I had never met her.
Hearing someone tell you, “I support you” is one thing, but Hilda would always follow up with, “Here’s how I’m going to support you. Here's what I know you’re capable of and you’re going to achieve it.”
She was my guardian angel and continues to be a big part of my life. Whenever I need help moving into my college apartments, Hilda is the person I call. And when my college friends ask about her, I tell them she’s my aunt because, honestly, that’s what she’s become: family.
Because the Boys & Girls Club was there for me, my future is now defined by my achievements not my hardships.
I'm now in college, studying public relations with a minor in business and a certificate in computer science. I plan to continue my education, working to become a lawyer equipped to fight against family violence.
It breaks my heart knowing that there are so many kids out there with stories similar to mine. Kids who are drowning in anger, sadness and misery, wondering “why is this happening to me?” I used to be one of them. Now, I want to change their outlook on life and support them in recognizing their potential, too. That's why I want to be a lawyer — I’m tired of these issues being swept under the rug and I’m ready to do something about it.
I’m an advocate for youth mental health with plans to enact solutions that combat child abuse and neglect. I also want to connect families with limited income to shelters and counseling facilities.
When life at home was unpredictable, I felt safe, supported and loved at my Boys & Girls Club. My mentors helped me realize that being successful wasn’t something I should question, I just had to figure out how hard I was willing to work if I wanted to get there.
Now, I’m not afraid to walk confidently into whatever room I’m entering. I stay motivated when something challenges me, because I don't want anyone to ever tell me that something is too hard for me. I’ll never accept that something is too hard for me, because I know there’s nothing I can’t do given how far I’ve already come.
For all the kids who are growing up like I did, I want to be the change and the support system that Hilda and my Club were for me.
Through BGCA’s partnership with RAINN — the nation's leading organization dedicated to abuse prevention, awareness and response — Boys & Girls Clubs provide caregivers with safety resources to support abuse prevention. If a young person you know is experiencing abuse, act now and find support by examining Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s parent safety resources.
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