Asia Hughes, Elroy Webb and Michael Harmon have something to say. And we should all be listening.
We should be listening when these teenagers tell us about gun violence. We should be listening when they tell us about foster care abuse. About depression. About what it means to live in a world that can fail our children so deeply.
About how we need to change.
Pay attention to these voices: they are the ones transforming lives in Muskegon and Muskegon Heights.
“I want people to be able to see that today’s youth have something they want to say, and all it takes is for one person to listen and project it even more,” Hughes said.
Hughes, a junior at Muskegon High School; Webb, a sophomore at Muskegon Heights Public Academy; and Harmon, a sophomore at Muskegon High School, were three of the students recognized at the Boys and Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore’s Youth of the Year event held at the Holiday Inn in downtown Muskegon on Thursday, Nov. 8. The teens too were the top three finalists for the Boys and Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore’s Youth of the Year competition, a national contest that provides winning students a series of financial awards for advanced studies and, ultimately, lands one teenager a $100,000 college scholarship.
Also recognized during the Youth of the Year event were: Lakaylah Pace, a junior at Muskegon Community Education Center; Kaylie Ostrander, a sophomore at Muskegon High School, and E’nire’ion McBride, a sophomore at Muskegon Heights Public School Academy.
The Boys and Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore selected these students to be recognized following an extensive process involving written assignments, interviews and presentations throughout the year. During Thursday’s Youth of the Year event, a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club that included a sit-down dinner, attendees had the opportunity to listen to speeches from Hughes, Webb and Harmon and proceed to vote for the student who would receive a $2,500 scholarship and go on to the Youth of the Year regionals contest. Hughes won the $2,500 scholarship, and Webb and Harmon each received a $500 award.
The students’ speeches Thursday evening were an important reminder of the deeply impactful and transformative work youth are doing in the Muskegon area, but also of the fact that their voices need to be better incorporated into policy, legislation and other efforts molding our city, state and country.
“One of the biggest challenges facing youth is youth’s voice not being heard,” said Joshua Stinger, the adventure sports director at the Boys and Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore, which launched in 2015 and now works with a little over 1,000 youth in our community.
“They each have a voice and something to say,” Stinger continued. “Sometimes, [adults] push them to the side when we should be embracing them. They have a lot of answers that adults struggle to find. Tap into their minds and listen to them. Put your opinions aside. Acknowledge we don’t know everything.”
During each of the students’ speeches, they spoke of the work they’re doing, and want to perform, in our communities, from reforming the foster care system to decreasing—and altogether eliminating—gun violence.
“I was a victim of physical abuse and neglect; my foster mother starved me and beat me,” Hughes said of her time spent in the foster care system when she was two years old.
Ultimately, Hughes was adopted by her grandmother, Loretta Griggs, who attended Thursday’s event, and the horrific experiences she faced as a child have inspired her to fight for change in a troubled foster care system.
“I want to change the situation; I don’t feel comfortable with my own self knowing there are kids still suffering,” Hughes said. “I’m going to be a social worker for children inside foster homes.”
Webb, who aspires to attend college to become an animator, told the Youth of the Year audience he is working to spearhead anti-gun violence actions throughout Muskegon and Muskegon Heights.
Gun violence has “severely affected my life,” Webb said: his brother, Anthony, and cousin, Ke’Azion, were shot and killed two weeks apart this past July.
“My brother was shot and killed down the street from us,” Webb said. “It was devastating. I was home watching YouTube when my mom came in and said my brother had just been killed. I was so close to my brother. When he died, the change was something. It made me think more about life and how people have no regards for anyone’s life.”
Just a couple weeks after Anthony was murdered, Webb’s cousin died when he and a friend “were playing with a gun and it went off and my cousin was shot in the face and killed,” Webb said.
“These events made me feel hurt, confused, unsafe, and scared,” Webb said. “Today, I’m scared into action.”
Part of that action includes advocating for anti-gun violence marches, rallies and demonstrations in Muskegon and Muskegon Heights.
“Nobody should live in fear, ever,” Webb said. “You see people walking down the street, and you know some of them are probably thinking, ‘I am doing to die today.’ I want everybody to feel loved and safe.”
The teenager too would like to see teens’ voices further incorporated in anti-gun violence efforts.
“We should make a big committee with teens from each school district and get together to let people tell their stories,” Webb said.
Pace too has been impacted by violence.
“As a 16-year-old girl in a family of five, who lives in the heart of an urban community, my life is different than someone who lives just a few miles away,” Pace wrote in her Youth of the Year application essay. “I have been witness to things only those of us who grow up in high crime areas experience, including the death of my oldest sibling, my big brother, who was shot by a friend.”
For Pace, a decrease in youth violence could come in the form of increasing students’ access to STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] programs.
“Science is my favorite subject,” Pace wrote. “I began to enjoy technology, so I became a member of the Muskegon Middle Robotics team, where my love for science and technology grew. I would like to improve myself and my community by bringing more positive science and technology projects for the youth of my community.”
The inspiration to change their communities—and world—is deeply supported at the Boys and Girls Club, the students emphasized; some said their lives had been “saved” by being a member of the club.
Harmon, who wants to attend Yale University to become a film producer, received his first job this past summer through the Boys and Girls Club and Community enCompass’s Youth Empowerment Project.
“This previous summer was a time of learning success, failure, leadership, and growth that’s had an incredible impact on me and where I want to go in life,” said Harmon, who also participated in the Boys and Girls Club’s adventure sports program this past summer. As part of that program, he tried wakeboarding, kayaking, and other water sports for the first time.
“Getting up on the wakeboard was a struggle for me because I’ve never done any such thing before,” Harmon said. “I’d never even heard of wakeboarding before. It took me 12 tries to get up successfully on the first day, but I continued to push forward and maintain faith I could overcome my struggles.”
McBride lauded the Boys and Girls Club, saying it has “changed my life.”
“I have been with BGCML since it opened; they have been supporting me with my homework, education, and have helped show me how to better my life,” said McBride, who hopes to empower youth, and especially youth of color.
“My vision for America’s youth is to give young African-American men the thought process that they get to define themselves by their actions, not by a stereotype,” McBride wrote in his Youth of the Year application. “My vision is to lead programs for kids and show them that life is full of opportunities.”
As the Boys and Girls Club continues to grow in Muskegon, Ostrander hopes the organization can dedicate a portion of its resources to supporting children with cancer in the community.
“My vision for childhood cancer victims is to make sure that they have support and do not feel alone,” said Ostrander, whose brother is battling acute lymphocytic leukemia. “I would love to start by highlighting their experiences through videos where they can relate to other children who have gone through similar experiences and not feel alone.”
Ultimately, it’s almost impossible to explain just how much the Boys and Girls Club has impacted them, the students said. What words can sufficiently describe a life that is changed? Perhaps just that: their lives changed. They gained self esteem and met people who became like family to them. They made friends and plans for the future.
“On April 16, 2015, the Boys and Girls Club first opened their doors, and I was one of their very first members,” Hughes said. “I never would’ve been here if the Boys and Girls Club did not believe in me.”
“After I experienced the Boys and Girls Club, I found family within those doors,” she continued. “My name is Asia Hughes; I’m a junior at Muskegon High School and I have a future. I’m smart, beautiful, challenged, mentally depressed but spiritually blessed.”
Confidently, these students now say: I am someone who deserves to be listened to. My voice matters—it always has and it always will.
When these teens speak, listen.