Former gang member named ‘Youth of the Year’

Here’s our “feel-good story of the year”! See why we enjoyed meeting the gal who so well represented the Pacific Northwest’s Boys & Girls Clubs at the national competition in Washington DC …

The Pacific Northwest “Youth of the Year”, Ashley Turner, tells about her life – thus far.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Growing up, Ashley Turner’s life wasn’t easy. She drifted into a street gang.

But, instead of becoming a tragic statistic, she turned her life around with the help of caring folks the Meyer Memorial Boys & Girls Club in Westmoreland.

We sat at a table outside of the club festooned with a giant “Welcome Home Ashley” banner; a red carpet led up to the front doors. The guest of honor was being welcomed “home” a few weeks ago after returning from a national scholarship competition back east.

“I came from poor circumstances as a child,” Turner began her story.

“To escape this, I became a gang member at the age of 11,” the perky 19-year-old said. “I really had a lot of ups and downs. Then, I found the Boys & Girls Club. Although it took a ninety-minute bus ride to get here, I came here every single day – that’s how devoted I was to this place. They really made me feel like I belonged.”

Club provides life-changing experiences
The positive influence of the club helped Turner turn her life around, she explained. Over the years, she became an enthusiastic supporter; and this year, she was encouraged to enter the “Youth of the Year” competition.

On the strength of her public speech and personal interviews, Turner won the Portland-area title. She went on to prevail at the statewide contest.

“From there, I went on to represent Oregon in the Pacific Region Youth of the Year competition, against eleven others from Japan, Alaska, Hawaii, and all over the Pacific Northwest. I won this competition as well.”

Although she didn’t mention it, we learned that by earning this title, she was also awarded $10,000 scholarship from the Readers’ Digest Foundation.

This large banner above the Meyer Memorial Boys & Girls Club was one of many welcoming Ashley Turner, after she represented the Pacific Region at the Youth of the Year competition in Washington DC.

Competes at our nation’s capitol
Although she wasn’t chosen for national honors, Turner beamed a genuine smile when she said visiting Washington DC was a great experience. “I’m so proud to be the face and voice of the past, present, and future members of our Boys & Girls Clubs.”

One highlight of the trip, Turner related, was meeting President Bush in the White House. “We met in the Oval Office – it’s a cream color, with thick yellow carpeting. The President was really funny and made a lot of jokes. But he also talked about the importance of leadership. He said the prayers of the people are with us. He was an amazing gentleman.”

Additionally, Turner spoke to members of Congress at a Congressional breakfast, and threw out the opening pitch at a Washington Nationals baseball game.

Shares her life’s mission
“I’ve decided that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Turner stated resolutely.

“So many of our kids need somebody they can talk to,” she explained. “They need to feel like they belong, and feel useful. Most of all, they really need positive influences in their lives. This is the most important thing that I can do as an individual.”

When a young person feels like they “don’t belong”, they tend to give up and lose hope, Turner made clear. “It becomes easy to fall into gangs, drugs and alcohol abuse. You feel like you have no reason for being, no reason to live. When things get so bad at home and school that the only ones you can really get along with are gang members, you need someplace to go. The Boys & Girls Clubs are that place.”

Flanked by two of her young supporters, Fiona and Sophia Marziello, Ashley Turner is welcomed back to Westmoreland’s Meyer Boys & Girls Club.

Gives back to her community
Even though Turner is today a student at Portland Community College, she also takes time to be a part-time staff member at the Boys & Girls Club.

“It is important for me to give back to my community. I want to give back to kids that are going through the same circumstances that I was.

“Look: I know what it was like. When you walk us through these double red doors, see staff members smiling at you, giving you a hug if you’re feeling down, helping you do homework so you can succeed, or even picking up a basketball and playing a little one-on-one, and actually taking time to care about you – it’s the best feeling in the world. It really is.”

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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