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A Long Overdue 'Thank You' to Youth Service America

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I was 14-years-old and had never spoken in front of an audience. I couldn't pronounce the word "eloquent" correctly and I was wearing a black dress I had borrowed from my sister. In my hands were two sheets of wrinkled paper with multiple creases, formed from the countless times pacing back and forth in an empty hotel room as I rehearsed my speech, right down to the joke about politicians I was going to crack at exactly one minute and 37 seconds.

I was standing in a corner with a glass of frosty Sprite that I wasn't going to drink in my hand, attempting to see if I could memorize a five minute speech in the two minutes I had left.

And then I went up on stage and began to speak and I was talking much too fast and it seemed like the words on the paper were all blurring together and I would glance up and there would be so, so many people, but then I picked out a few familiar faces and I gradually slowed down and maybe gained some confidence, and then I reached the end and remembered I had forgotten to thank Youth Service America and Senator Harris Wofford for the Harris Wofford Youth Award granted only to kids they believed were changing the world and...I realized I had spoken for four minutes and 55 seconds over my time limit, but I was so happy and grateful that I didn't care and I gave a sheepish smile and stepped down. At last.

Sorry. I have a tendency to forget to breathe.

A few months ago I was invited as a keynote speaker at the Youth Service Institute's annual conference and was, once again, the youngest one there. I'm 15-years-old now. I looked around and saw these unfamiliar faces and then stared at my empty hands. I closed my eyes, opened them, and began to speak.

My first words were "Thank you."

Thank you for teaching me confidence. For showing me that I can only be myself, but that being myself is enough. Thank you, Youth Service America, for giving me the ability to see that I may not be as experienced as some executives, I may lack 30 years and 300 gray hairs, but that passion is what really matters.

Passion is what lets 15-year-olds walk up to a podium and speak of inspiration and hope and changing the world and starting a revolution. Passion is what lets her finish with a gasp, breathing hard, with the feeling that she's just spilled her heart out to hundreds of people who didn't know her name before today -- because that's what happened.

Passion is what gives her a standing ovation.

I'm a year late, but thank you, YSA and every single one of the people in it, for inspiring me.

I hope to pass that inspiration on. I believe I will.

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Global Youth Service day is next week, so I felt that it was a proper time to mention the infinite amount of help and, even more so, inspiration, that YSA has given me. And, perhaps, to promote an organization and an event that really doesn't need any more promotion.