When her family dynamic suddenly changed, Isabel began taking on more responsibilities to support her single mom and 4 siblings. Read how their local Boys & Girls Club became a support system — and how Isabel became an advocate for kids from single parent households.
Floating in outer space, there are giant clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. Some nebulae are formed from supernovas, which are explosions of dying stars that then become nurseries where new stars are born.
Nebulae remind me of my late grandfather and his love of stargazing. We’d look up at the sky together and the world and its possibilities would feel endless. My grandfather was a presence in my life when my father could not be.
Nebulae also inspire me to grow from a tough situation into a bright shining star for others who are growing up in single-parent households.
I was four years old when my father was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. I became one of the 1.25 million children1 in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent and one of the 24 million American kids2 living in a single-parent household.
Today, I want to tell my story because I want others like me to know that they’re not alone. I want to be like a star shedding new light on possibilities for all families, no matter what their circumstances may be.
At first, I did not understand why my father had suddenly disappeared.
For years, I waited at the window each day for his car to pull into the driveway because my mother told me that he was away on work trips and vacations. She was trying to protect me and our family, all while working overtime to take care of me and my four siblings.
Mom assumed both parental roles, constantly having to be in multiple places at once. She had to secure a second job to support my siblings and me. Meanwhile, I had to grow up fast because my family depended on me. I took on the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, getting my younger siblings ready for school and helping them on and off their bus.
Finally at age eight, I found out where my father really was. I felt ashamed, not wanting anyone to know about my father’s situation, not wanting anyone to judge me.
When we moved to a new town, I struggled with feeling comfortable in my new surroundings on top of finally understanding my family’s reality — my father wasn’t coming back. And my mom would need my help.
When I was in third grade, I overheard my older sister telling my mom about a place called the Boys & Girls Club and all the programs it offered. Being shy, I was reluctant to accompany my sister to Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holland. Like any big sister — she ignored me and took me anyway. I’ll always be thankful she did.
With the stress of my responsibilities at home, my Club became a safe place where I could be a kid again. I made new friends while playing basketball in the gym and exploring artistic expression in the art room. I felt a sense of belonging. I felt included and protected in a judgment-free environment. I had mentors who pushed me to become the best version of myself and staff in whom I could confide.
During middle school, my responsibilities with my younger siblings grew and I no longer had time to attend the Club as often as I would have liked. For a while, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all of my safe spaces. Plus, the closer I got to life after high school graduation, the more intimidating the process of planning for my future became. All of these stressors took a toll on my mental health. I knew that I needed to advocate for myself and get help.
Though the Club was not in my daily schedule, I remained connected to my Club director, Mr. Justin. He urged me to have my younger siblings join so that I could keep Club activities in my daily schedule. Knowing that my siblings were going to be well cared for while I had the freedom to focus on my own interests and aspirations was a huge relief.
With this support system in place, I came to recognize my own strength and resilience. I volunteered for events, joined programs, became a youth group leader at my church and assumed leadership roles at my Club. I participated in Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s premier youth recognition program, Youth of the Year, and earned the title of 2023-24 Midwest Youth of the Year, representing my entire region. I visited multiple colleges, met application deadlines, and received assistance with the FAFSA process. I applied to nine colleges and was accepted to all of them. I earned a scholarship that allowed me to attend the school of my choice and pursue a career in anesthesiology without accumulating any debt.
All along the way, my mother, my family and my Club were all there to lift me up. They let me know it was okay to not be ashamed to tell my story. They let me know if it was okay to ask for help. They let me know that I had a team standing behind me, believing in me and wanting me to succeed.
Currently, about half of the kids at my Boys & Girls Club live in a single parent household. It’s my goal for kids like me — kids from single parent households, kids with incarcerated parents, as well as single parents themselves — to have a community and support system like I do. These experiences are just not spoken about enough, and it’s important we build bonds among single-parent households to raise awareness, share experiences and be encouraged to persevere through any challenge.
I want these youth and their families to flourish as I have. I want to be the same kind of mentor and leader to them as those who surrounded and supported me.
I’ve been able to accomplish so much because of the home I found at Boys & Girls Club and I intend to pay it forward. I want to be like those who helped me find my interests, my people and my personal drive to reach for the stars.
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 Isabel S. 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: