Published on February 17, 2017 under Celebrate The Children


YoY Finalist Rebecca

A few years back, Rebecca, now 17, was walking with her mother and siblings down Pine Hills Road to church.  Her stomach was grumbling, reflecting her family’s bare pantry.  When they approached a bus stop, Rebecca noticed a Styrofoam takeout container sitting on the bench inside.  Her mother told her to leave it alone, but she sat down and opened it up.

Inside was a traditional Haitian meal of oxtail, rice and beans, by all appearances, untouched. Despite her mother’s protests, Rebecca, whose family emigrated from Haiti, dug in.  It only took a couple minutes for her mom to join in the feast.  “We decided it was a gift from God,” remembers Rebecca. They were, after all, on their way to church.

Rebecca has scores of stories from her growing-up years that are completely outside the frame of reference of most teenagers. Because her family – Rebecca, her mother, sister and two nieces– was always struggling to make rent, they moved constantly, meaning Rebecca had to change schools more than a dozen times between kindergarten and now.   “Home” to Rebecca has meant trailer parks, motel rooms and a string of friends’ apartments—even, for a time, their van.

“It was a big van,” said Rebecca.  “When I was little, I didn’t think it was that unusual to get up and make up the bed in the back of the van, and then get started on our day.”

That’s the thing about Rebecca.  Despite very trying circumstances, she’s always had a grateful heart, and has treated life as an adventure.

But moving schools all the time, she craved continuity.  Growing up, she was very hesitant to make friends, because she knew she’d be leaving them in a matter of months. There was no point in getting attached, in putting down roots.

Enter Boys & Girls Clubs. Walt Disney World Clubhouse Service Director Jose Bastias remembers about 3 years ago, when he was out in the parking lot cleaning up after an event.  Rebecca’s mother pulled up in a car, rolled down the window, and engaged him in conversation. It seems she had driven by the clubhouse many times, and knew that children attended there, but she assumed that she couldn’t afford to send her children.

“She couldn’t believe it that we didn’t charge kids to attend,” remembers Jose.  Rebecca showed up, ready for Club, the next day.

Over the three years of her membership, the Club has provided Rebecca with some incredible experiences–including a week at Harvard University two summers ago, as the local winner of the Artscience contest. Rebecca and her team had invented a bioluminescent container that could be used to grow mushrooms in Haiti.

But importantly, the Club has provided her with the consistency that she longed for.  Though the family continued to move around, Rebecca made getting to the club each day her top priority.

“For the first time, she made lasting friends, and was part of a group,” says BGCCF Prevention Specialist Nadia Slaughter, with whom Rebecca shares a special bond.  “She needed someone to set high expectations for her, and to be there for her emotionally,” says Nadia of their bond.  At the same time, Nadia says, “Rebecca refuses to be a victim.  She is the most upbeat person I know.”

An A/B student at the Orlando Baptist Temple School, Rebecca wants to major in sociology when she starts college next year.  Her goal?  To become a social worker, and to start a temporary housing program for homeless families.  But Rebecca emphasizes temporary.  “I want each family to have a contract, and a list of expectations, on how they will work to become self-sufficient.” She’s thought it all out–in order to receive housing, the parents will need to enroll in job training classes and work to finish school.  The children will have assigned chores to do. In other words, to meet their hardship head-on, and work to overcome it.  Just like Rebecca.

“When I think about what I want for all of the children I work with, it’s Rebecca’s example that comes to mind,” says Nadia.  “She has experienced the roughest of circumstances, but she refuses to be a product of her environment.  I’m very proud.”

To view excerpts from Rebecca’s interview, click here:  Meet Rebecca!

Rebecca is one of 5 finalists for Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida Youth of the Year.  The winner will be announced in March.

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