This story is part of HuffPost Impact's 12 Days, 12 Cities, 12 Families series, highlighting Americans who have persevered to overcome incredible challenges and the nonprofits that helped change their lives. Check back tomorrow for the continuation of this series.
Isabel Ju is a good kid. At 15, she's a great student, loves math, and says she has no interest in joining the cliques in her high school who are into "bad stuff." In an extended family made up solely of women, she's grown used to picking up extra responsibilities too.
Isabel's family is poor and they do what they can to take care of each other. She doesn't really remember a time when she wasn't helping to raise her little sister or doing chores for her grandmother next door. When her older sister wants a night out or needs to run errands during the day, Isabel goes across the street and watches the 18-year-old's new baby. She has to do all her homework at school because her family can't afford to buy her a computer. But when she's home, living on the same street as her entire family makes it nearly impossible for Isabel to have time to herself. So when a classmate of hers said she was going to an information session for a youth program that could get her out of her downtown L.A. neighborhood a few times a month, she went along for an interview.
Facing Her Fears
The program Isabel joined, Stoked, was way outside her comfort zone. Although she possesses a sharp intellect and an uncommon maturity for her age, Isabel is at times painfully shy and admitted that she struggles with even talking to anyone out of her close circle of friends.
"I didn't feel comfortable talking to new and different people or a lot of people," she explained. While determined to succeed in a lot of ways, confidence in herself has been Isabel's major stumbling block. "I want to go to college but I don't know what I want to be. I'm not really good at being sure of myself."
That's why Isabel almost quit after her first few meetings at Stoked during the beginning of this summer. The New York-based nonprofit matches inner-city kids with mentors who help them learn surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding over the course of a year. Isabel wasn't ruffled by the challenges of street gangs, drugs or helping to run her family. But speaking in front of a circle of strangers? Having everyone stare at her while she figured out a skateboard? It was too much.
But her mentor, Cynthia Lester, kept showing up for their surf and skateboard lessons every saturday, so Isabel kept coming too. She didn't want to let her down.
Cynthia isn't a stranger to Isabel's type of family problems or her struggles with self-esteem. The 30-year-old grew up the poorest kid on the block in a California suburb with a mentally unstable mother. "I left home at 13 and had a troublesome life," Cynthia described. "I fortunately got involved with a film program through my school with an amazing mentor and teacher who helped us make films." Her mentor kept her on track until she eventually made it to college and a professional career in documentary filmmaking. But upon returning to Los Angeles after years in New York, Cynthia felt herself floundering in a hometown that didn't feel like her own.
Isabel Ju and her mentor, Cynthia
She found a purpose and a sense of community during her meetings with Isabel, she said. "Every day was like an epiphany. We learn stuff from each other all the time about communicating and how to build trust." Stoked disposes mentoring pairs to the sort of intense bonding that comes from big rushes of adrenaline and being scared silly together. With Cynthia's help, Isabel learned how to swim, how to ride a surfboard, and how to fall off a skateboard in front of her peers without being crippled by fear or embarrassment. And Cynthia, who had never tried these sports before, fell off her board and kept going right alongside her.
Mentor and Teen, Growing Up
Over the summer school break, the two worked together to get past Isabel's bigger fears. Each saturday meeting at Stoked starts with a big circle with all the mentoring pairs, where they share personal stories related to a chosen topic. At first, Isabel couldn't stand having everyone stare at her while she talked, or cheer her on when it was her turn to try a new skateboarding trick. But, Isabel said, "little by little, I'm comfortable with talking more with strangers. Stoked helped me to get more open to new people. Now, I think that I can do different things that I didn't know I could do."
This fall, just a few months after joining Stoked, Ju became a member of her school's debate team, which she knows will help her become even more comfortable with speaking in front of strangers. Isabel is striking in how determined she is to overcome her fears, and watching her grow in this way has inspired Cynthia to face down one of her old fears: applying for graduate school.
Knowing that she would soon be helping Isabel apply for college, Cynthia said, "I have to show her it's not scary. I'll do a draft and show her how many times it takes me to get it right. I think that's why Isabel holds back -- because she's very good at school and she may be scared because she doesn't want to fail outside her comfort zone. I'm hoping to show her that if you push yourself farther you'll actually do better."
Watching the two of them together, it's easy to see their relationship is building each of them up in little ways. As they chat about school and family, Cynthia interjects gentle advice and encourages Isabel to take credit for her accomplishments. The mentoring role seems to come naturally to Cynthia and spending time with Isabel has made her realize that she wants to pursue social work in her graduate studies.
Back home, Isabel's mother complains about the skateboarding bruises and sore muscles that her daughter has racked up during her lessons. "I messed up my knee one time really nasty and my mom's like, 'this isn't any good for you, what are you doing skating? Always something happens, I don't want you to be complaining each time." But Ju knows that secretly, her mother is proud. "Last time I was telling her I have nothing to do and she said, no, you have that program that you go to. She thinks it's good."
Stoked gets Isabel out of her house, away from her family responsibilities and allows her a few hours each week to just be a teenager who's trying to grow up and find herself. Next up for the winter season is a brand new lesson: Snowboarding. Isabel said that with Cynthia there by her side, she's looking forward to it. "Cynthia gives me that little extra push. Her being by me and letting me know that she's here helps me trust myself."
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