Joan Mwangangi spent spring break in Austin rubbing elbows with some of the state's powerful legislators and earning a scholarship while being named the Boys and Girls Clubs Texas Youth of the Year. It was a moment to remember for a girl born more than 8,000 miles away.
"I was born in Kenya, moved to New York around 2- or 3-years-old, then moved to Texas and been down here ever since," the 18-year-old said.
Home is Grand Prairie, and her home away from home is the Boys and Girls Club.
She started in middle school and, through the years, has immersed herself in programs that teach and support leadership, academic excellence and a healthy lifestyle.
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"They have invested so much in me the past seven years that I've been a member," she said.
"Joan has proven to be an exceptional club member and embodies the core values of Boys and Girls Clubs," said Charles English, President/CEO of Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas.
English made those comments in a news release announcing that Joan had been chosen as the Youth of the Year by Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas.
That honor sent Joan to Austin to compete for the Texas Youth of the Year title.
Part of the competition included a speech that explained how the Boys and Girls Club impacted her life. Joan reached back into one of the darkest times of her young life to explain.
"My sophomore year, my self-esteem was at its lowest and my fear of failure was at its highest. And, at the same time, my dad tries to uproot the life I’ve made here for 14 years to go to a country I barely knew. So as time went on, I wanted to escape all this negativity and found a place of positivity. So I felt the only way out was through suicide," Joan told the crowd.
It was hard to believe that the confident young woman owning her voice and the room had once contemplated suicide, but it was her truth.
Also part of her truth is how an advisor at the Grand Prairie club helped turn a near-suicidal teenager into a young woman focused on a future.
She told that story, too, in her speech.
"She taught us, it's OK to put yourself before others. It's OK to say no to some people and activities. Your first and foremost priority should be your mental health. So, I stand before you as courageous as a lion and my mental health and self esteem at its highest," she announced to a room of applause and cheers.
The speech earned Joan the title of Texas Youth of the Year and a $5,000 scholarship. She could earn more scholarship money as she competes for Southwest Region Youth of the Year and perhaps National Youth of the Year.
The bigger victory, though, may be what happened that night in Austin as a crowd applauded her. The experience validated her and the value she brings simply by being herself.
"When I was looking around, everyone had stopped what they were doing and pulled out their phones and started recording. And, it made me feel like what I was doing was so impactful," she smiled. "It was just so surreal and exciting that all these amazing people and those I respect were clapping for me and a standing ovation for me. And, it was so, so amazing."
Joan will graduate from South Grand Prairie High School in the spring, then it's on to college where she plans to major in kinesiology.