On a sunny Friday afternoon, just a week out from summer vacation, a stream of kids flooded into the gym at the Mountain View Boys & Girls Club, where balloons decorated the walls and a string of multicolored flags read “Class of 2016.” It would be Shanai Leon’s second graduation ceremony this spring.
Except this graduation ceremony wasn’t really about the graduates — it was about everyone they hope will follow in their footsteps.
“I just want the other kids to look up to us,” said Leon, 18. “I think it’s a great opportunity to show kids that graduating is not just getting out of school, it’s actually a big step in life.”
Leon says he learned leadership at the Mountain View clubhouse. When he first came here, he was in the seventh grade, new to Anchorage and intimidated by the fierce competition in the clubhouse gym, he said. He watched the older boys play basketball, and looked for ways to prove them wrong when they told him he couldn’t do it. Then he started playing football for a Boys & Girls Club team. Something clicked.
In high school, he drove across town to attend the International Baccalaureate program at West High School, and by the end of his senior year, he’d won multiple state championships on both the football and basketball teams.
“Overall, I think hard work really gets you there, and if you wanna do it, you can do it,” he said. “That’s basically the example I’m trying to set before I leave the Boys & Girls Club.”
He hears how people talk about his old neighborhood; the “ghetto kids” and the bad reputation. By working hard and setting an example, he hopes to make things better, he said. He has plans to play football and study medicine at a college in New York. He wants to become a doctor, he says. He hopes to make a difference.
How do you measure that difference? Before he became a Boys & Girls Club manager, Dave Barney was an electrician. In that field, it’s easy to see the results of your work at the end of the day, he said. But when you work with teenagers, how do you know? It’s kids like Leon, Barney said. That’s how you know.
The clubhouse manager watched with pride as Leon made his way through his senior year. Barney always hoped more would do the same.
“They gotta fly, they gotta leave the nest, you know what I mean? So many of our kids get stuck in the webbing,” he said.
Some earn a diploma and go off to college. Some find jobs right away. Some move in with friends; some become parents; a few wind up in jail. Some never graduate at all. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 40 percent of Mountain View residents ages 18-24 have not finished high school
Leon was one of five graduates to be honored at the Friday ceremony. He was one of only three who showed up. They sat in chairs at the front of the gym, between the stage and the bleachers arranged in a half-circle, two rows deep. At the back of the room, sheet cakes waited on folding tables. The invited speakers waited in more chairs nearby.
In the bleachers, the younger Boys & Girls Club members wriggled and whispered. Once on stage, everyone had something to say.
“I really do believe that you are all our future,” said Carnard Davis, the club’s assistant manager.
“Anchorage needs you,” said George Martinez, speaking on behalf of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
“God put you on this earth for a reason,” said Jemuel Prince, a rising sophomore at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
His shivered from nerves, but his voice was steady. He knew what he wanted to say. Prince lives in Mountain View and spent years going to the neighborhood Boys & Girls Club. At first, all he wanted to do was play basketball and chill, he said. Then he set his sights higher. He found role models. After graduation, he went off to UAA to study aviation. When Davis asked him to come back and speak at the Boys & Girls Club graduation, he said yes without hesitation.
“It could end up changing them,” he said.
He wanted to show the other kids what’s possible when you really try. Sitting in the bleachers, surrounded by the other club members, Dearo Luak listened to Prince speak. She said she’s been coming to the Boys & Girls Club since she first moved to Mountain View in grade school. Now, she’s preparing to go into her senior year at East High School.
Luak’s been thinking about graduation since eighth grade, she said. She’s not sure what she’ll do after high school. Maybe she’ll go study her secret interest, computer technology. Whatever comes next, she’s sure about graduation. Friday, she listened to every speaker who took the stand.
“I thought it was really inspirational, how they were telling us to never give up and always believe,” she said afterwards. “Because sometimes, you know, school is hard. You’ve got to keep pushing and pushing. You’ve got to remember you’re doing this for a purpose.”
As she listened, her thoughts drifted to all the other young people in the bleachers around her.
“I was looking around at the kids, like, they’re gonna be up there one day. And I hope most of them are there one day, and I hope to see more,” she said. “Like, everybody succeed.”