At 14, Gabriela was experiencing an onslaught of difficult circumstances, from being cyber bullied, to missing out on quality time with her father, to being sexually harassed by someone she thought was a friend. She didn’t know where to turn, who to talk to, or who she could trust.
Fortunately for her, a childhood friend had gotten involved with the Y’s Youth and Government program, which meant she had started collecting buttons on her backpack and sporting a neon green YMCA sweatshirt at school. These bold buttons and loud clothing caught Gabriela’s interest and she reached out, inquiring about the program behind the gear. That’s when she learned about what her friend described as “the coolest program ever.”
“The way she sold it to me as a 14 year old was, three times out of the year you get to leave home and you get to go to Camp Roberts for a weekend, and then there’s essentially an entire week in February you spend in Sacramento with other teens our age,” Gabriela recalls.
For a 14 year old badly in need of a reset, the chance to escape her problems with travel, and the opportunity to learn new things while making new friends sounded like a dream, so she enrolled in the program already underway.
Jumping into the program already in full swing, Gabriela left the first meeting intimidated, second guessing whether or not she was cut out for it. “I felt like I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I thought, these kids are way smarter than me. There’s no way I could ever be this knowledgeable about legislation. But there was someone who thought otherwise, and that was the program advisor, Brian Cook. He talked to me right after and said, ‘If you stick with this, you’re going to love it.’”
Gabriela agreed to stick with it through her first conference, and sure enough, Brian was right. “I fell in love with it,” she recalls. “The moment I heard everyone cheering and screaming this wave hits you, just booming. There’s so much love in the air. It’s
The program has had a lasting effect on Gabriela. Not only did the new challenge and the supportive community help her keep her head up as she recovered from the many challenges thrown her way at a young age, but through the program she learned life skills. “We learned about the legislative process, how to debate, how to speak properly, and how to do things that you use in everyday life, but also transferrable skills that can lead you into a better future.”
Through the Y’s Youth and Government program, Gabriela learned that she had a deep love for legislation and politics. So much so that she ended up graduating from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in political science with a focus in law, politics, and policy.
Since her time in the program, her connection and commitment to the Y has only grown stronger. The advisor who convinced her to try the program out approached her a year later to ask about her interest in becoming a camp counselor. Having learned the value of trying new things, and experiencing firsthand the impact that a Y leader can have on a young life, Gabriela signed on for the summer.
At the end of her very first day, Gabriela went home exhausted. “I had never been so exhausted in my entire life. I remember going home thinking, I’m not cut out for this. And then I thought to myself, you made a commitment, you have to stick this out — at the very least finish this summer.”
“When I think about that now, I think it’s hilarious. I’m now going into my ninth year of Summer Day Camp. I’ve had the opportunity to go quite literally from being the youngest leader aide to being the youngest assistant director to being the youngest director. I’ve moved up into a coordinator position at this point and it’s been a huge source of pride being able to watch this program evolve over the years.” After graduating from college, Gabriela thought her time with the Y had come to an end, but her commitment to the community has proven too strong to break.
“While the staff changes and grows, the environment is the same and the goal is the same. At the end of the day everyone is there to create a warm and inviting place for everyone, not just for the children, where they feel like they can be a part of something greater than themselves.”
Gabriela is grateful she grew up with the Y and she is proud to work for YMCA of Silicon Valley as the organization helps youth grow into strong and independent young leaders.
“I think that in the moment where I was, before I was a part of the Y that my life could have gone in a very different direction. Because there were individuals who recognized that and saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself at the time, I was able to go into a direction that turned me into someone able to help others. I’m able to pass that forward because of the Y.”