I never really felt like I had a specific place where I could feel safe, comforted and be myself.
I was a kid who felt isolated from his peers, alienated by society, and lost in a chaotic world of countless variables. I felt lonely and found more comfort in teacher figures who didn’t truly understand me.
As someone on the autism spectrum and I have faced the stresses of being an outcast from society all my life. It has been difficult for me to make friends in the past, and those that I did make, I wondered if they truly were my friends. I found more comfort living in my own world of my imagination than interacting with peers. In order to keep adults from touching my hair or asking me questions about school, I would immediately drop down to the floor and play with whatever dust I could find. I hoped that maybe the adult would think I’m busy and leave me alone to my own devices.
Most of my childhood was populated with new sets of people that didn’t understand or accept me. With countless adults prejudiced towards me, often unconsciously, I never really felt like I had a specific place where I could feel safe, comforted and be myself.
But then the Boys & Girls Club came into my life and completely changed it.
I was a socially awkward fifteen-year-old trying to find his place but was offered a volunteering position at my local Boys & Girls Club to teach STEM programs in the technology center. At first I was very nervous and afraid that I would not be accepted by the staff or the kids but quickly found this to be the opposite of the case. I felt empowered by teaching students about technology and loved to see them grow. Most importantly, it made me feel important to empower other children through their imaginations and watch the progress they would and discoveries they would find.
At the same time, I had always wanted to pursue a career in STEM, but felt like I would always be a follower because of my past experiences and prejudices I’ve faced. But being in the Club changed that for me. I realized I could lead, I could be accepted and that my past experiences didn’t have to predict my future.
Eventually, I was hired as a Club staff member and found that it gave me even more room to grow and find my passion for teaching. Working with different kids from various walks of life gave me a broader appreciation for the impact I could have with my peers and other kids in the Club.. I have also worked with many kids who are on the autism spectrum, and when I work with these kids, I relive all the experiences I have had as a child. Watching these students face the same challenges with their peers and society frustrates me to no end. This is prejudice that must be ended, and as humans, we have a duty to build each other up instead of pushing groups of individuals to the back of society.
According to the CDC, 1 in 53 children are on the autism spectrum. This is a large group of people that often go underrepresented, and the lack of attention, awareness, and action can prevent kids on the spectrum from feel empowered and responsible. This is why I love my Boys & Girls Club. It allows all children to feel this sense of safe belonging. As National Youth of the Year, I am happy to share my story and continue to pursue a positive path forward and push the narrative of what it means to be an individual on the spectrum.
The Club has brought me experiences I’ve never dreamed of including participating in a media tour from my Club with American Ballet Theater principal ballerina, Misty Copeland, and I also got to meet country singer Kane Brown. Each of these opportunities has given me the ability to share my story and broader awareness for kids in the autism spectrum.
I dream that future kids on the spectrum will feel included, loved, and accepted by society. As the world stands right now, that can seem very bleak. But I choose to stay positive. If, as a collective, we push the needle and pursue a positive path forward, we can continue to build a brighter future for generations to come.