As Dalilah F. made strides to close a six-year gap in her education while overcoming a language barrier, she felt lonely and discouraged at times. But at her local Boys & Girls Club, she found the motivation to keep going and the self-confidence to succeed.
When I look back at my childhood, I’m happy and deeply proud of how far I’ve come. I went from having no education and speaking very little English in a completely foreign country to succeeding in school and becoming a leader in my community — all in just six years’ time.
I’ve crossed off my goals and achieved more than I thought possible back when I made the move that would change my life, coming to live with my grandmother. I now know what happiness means to me and where my own happiness comes from, and yes, I’ll tell you.
For me, happiness is about self-discovery, hope, listening to my heart and following it where it leads me. Happiness is being kind to myself and not worrying what others may think of me. It’s learning how to care for myself, even as I’m coping with stressful situations. Basically, happiness comes down to just loving myself — a lesson I learned with the help of my Boys & Girls Club.
It wasn’t easy to learn this, and it definitely took me some time (six years’ time and a lifetime to go), but I did. Because having this understanding has made all the difference in my life. It’s changed the way I see myself and allowed me to keep moving closer to the bright and promising future I envision.
When I was younger, I’d always heard that “education unlocks futures.”
Growing up in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I wanted to work toward my education but circumstances prevented me from going to school. Day after day, I watched from the window as kids in my neighborhood came home from school. I felt left out and wanted so badly to be one of those kids — to learn and fit in.
Eventually my brother and I moved to Washington state to live with my grandmother, and as soon as we arrived, she enrolled us in elementary school.
I finally, officially started my education in fifth grade, and I remember my first day just being the worst — I was behind in every way you could be. I knew little to no English and I’d technically skipped everything I would have learned in kindergarten through fourth grade. I didn’t know how to read or write, nor did I have foundational knowledge of subjects that my classmates had been studying for years. When my teacher asked me to write the number one, I wrote “uno.”
To catch up with my peers academically, I was placed in support classes. Although it was a struggle, I practiced every day and learned to read and write. It took a lot of extra classes and tutoring, and even though I still felt like an outsider the entire time, I kept telling myself that I could learn English and do well in school, too.
My grandmother made a great sacrifice to bring us to the United States, so I set a goal to show my appreciation by making my grandma proud by creating a better future for myself. My teachers saw my dedication and gave me lots of additional support along the way.
I was not a very talkative person. I worked independently and quietly so as not to disrupt anything or anyone. I wanted to take in every ounce of information I could to make up for the missing years of my education. However, I got bullied a lot. Other students didn’t understand the struggles I faced and I became an easy target.
I didn’t know how to stand up for myself then, but I was able to find my voice with the support of my second family.
Before Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton and Franklin Counties opened a new location in my neighborhood, I was feeling at my lowest. I was 14 years old and feeling empty, depressed and unable to talk to anyone, including my grandmother. Bullying and feeling like an outsider takes its toll on you. I didn’t want anyone to know what kind of pain I was in and I didn’t want pity from others. My grades dropped and sometimes I’d skip class just to go and cry at a nearby park. I was eager to find friends who would accept me for who I was.
My brother frequently went to the Club, and one day, he invited me to be his guest. I remember all the eyes that were on me as I walked into the teen room for the first time. The teen coordinator welcomed me immediately despite how red my face was and how softly I’d said “hi” to everyone. I analyzed my new surroundings and tried to make sense of why the teens were so full of excitement and why the teen room had so many windows (so many windows!).
For a while, I sat quietly and observed but I eventually gained the courage to join in some activities. When COVID-19 caused my Club to go under lockdown, I was able to stay connected with staff and members through social media and homework check-ins. But after being isolated for so long, I realized how much I missed hanging out with the other kids at my Club. When the Club opened its doors again, I decided to put myself out there and get more involved. I joined the Keystone teen leadership program, where I volunteered to help with all kinds of activities, including organizing a dance and running our Keystone store.
I continued to get to know and bond with the staff and other teens at my Club. During the summer, I went swimming, played intramural sports and went on college tours. I learned how to cook and manage my money. I even joined our mentor club and took on leadership roles, becoming president of our Keystone club.
The confidence I gained from trying new things and following my passions at my Club also expanded into other areas of my life. Club staff helped me realize that college was possible for me, and I began taking college courses. I joined the girls’ soccer team at school and became a captain for the junior varsity team while playing on the varsity team. I joined the Associated Student Body and was elected to serve as president. I also made the principal’s list with a 3.6 GPA.
My Club never stopped supporting me along the way — helping with my courses, growing my leadership skills for the Associated Student Body and cheering me on at my soccer games. When I felt sad or discouraged because I was growing up without my parents, my mentors at the Club reminded me that I was both capable and deserving of any achievement I wanted for myself, no matter what circumstances I was in. I began feeling the same excitement and happiness that I had seen from the other Club kids on my first day.
I started to view all of those windows in the teen room as windows of opportunity for the kind of person I wanted to be. And I realized that the happiness I had craved for so long was inside of me, and that just being myself was all I needed to unleash it.
Today, I know that I am not lost; I’m simply redirecting. I’m not a failure; I am learning. I am not behind; I’m preparing. I don’t know the rest of my life’s story yet, but I’m ready to handle whatever comes my way.
With the help of my grandma, my teachers and my extended family at my Boys & Girls Club, I learned how to love myself and that self-love gave me the confidence to ask for help when I needed it. At my Club, I was able to talk to the staff about the problems I faced. They helped me escape negativity and fully embrace myself so that I could refocus on my education. They empowered me to create my own path.
As I begin my life’s journey after high school as a first-generation college student, I’m even more enthusiastic to continue to contribute to my community and give back to my Club. I want to keep advocating for youth and be a source of inspiration to my peers the way so many others at my Club were for me. I plan on studying criminology in college because I want to protect my community and make sure it is a safe place for everyone.
Like my Club was for me, I want my community to be a safe space in which everyone can live in peace without judgment. I think that would be pretty cool.
Having a place to belong and someone who believes in you can have a powerful impact. Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Youth of the Year are a shining example of this and exemplify what it means to be a Boys & Girls Club kid. The Youth of the Year program wouldn’t be possible without Signature Sponsors Kohl’s & Toyota, and Marquee Sponsor Mondelez International, who share a dedication to providing better tomorrows for young people. Learn more about Dalilah F. and the Youth of the Year program and join us in opening doors to great futures for millions of youth.
Boys & Girls Clubs of America provides caring adult mentors and life-shaping programs to millions of kids and teens each year. In safe, inclusive places, youth build the skills and resilience to thrive in school, the workplace and in life. Join us on our mission of helping all young people reach their full potential: