Rodesha Smith: Virginia’s Youth of the Year

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On her first day at the Northside Club, Rodesha Smith wasn’t happy to be there.

She was a shy 7th grader, and she’d been through a lot: Her mother had just passed away and she and her three younger siblings were being looked after by their aunt. Rodesha’s grades were suffering, and she had fallen into a depression.

Her aunt told her that she needed to go to the Club and try to make some friends. She went begrudgingly with her sister and brothers in tow. Staff took her on a tour of the Club, and remembers meeting a young man who was dancing, saying hello to the whole staff and feeling generally overwhelmed. She went home feeling stressed by all of the kids. “I said I wasn’t coming back, but my aunt made me come back,” Rodesha said. “I was very shy. I was a loner.”

Today, it’s hard to imagine Rodesha as someone who even mildly resembles a loner: She is bright, confident and effervescent; she speaks with joy and authenticity and tucks yellow dandelions into her curly hair, smiling broadly as she talks. Rodesha, the same Rodesha who was frightened by the Club and reluctant to talk to strangers, is the 2018 Youth of the Year for her Club. Significantly, she was also named the 2018 champion for Virginia’s statewide Youth of the Year competition.

“That’s what woke me up.”

Despite her initial reluctance, Rodesha kept coming to the Club as a middle schooler. She began to realize that the Club was a haven from the stresses of her young life. “When I started coming here, it was happy and cheerful. When everyone is happy and cheerful around you, you want to be happy and cheerful too. You don’t want to be the depressed one in the group,” she said. “Even if you do have stuff going on at home, this is a place to get away from it.”

Rodesha found an escape at the Club, but she couldn’t run too far from her flagging grades. Club staff were faithful to ask all of the Club members about their homework and asked to see their report cards. “I showed them my report card, and they were like, ‘Girl, you got to get it together, because you are way smarter than that.’ That’s what woke me up,” she said. “I told myself I needed to do better for myself.”

With the encouragement and support of Club staff, Rodesha committed herself to her studies and began to bring her grades back up. As she prepares to leave John Marshall High School, Rodesha is graduating at the top of her class with a 4.0 GPA.

Over time, Rodesha also began to open up socially. She insists that she never had rhythm until she came to Club and started dancing with fellow students. “As soon as I started going here, I started dancing. And they were looking at me like, ‘This girl cannot dance.’ But I started getting used to dancing with them, and I started to dance more and more,” she said. Rodesha served as a cheerleader for her high school and now dances with her own squad, called Rhythm Invasion, which practices regularly at the Northside Club.

Blossoming as a leader

As Rodesha became a Northside regular, she grew in confidence. She joined Leadership Academy and then became president of Keystone, a program to develop teen leaders in the areas of academic success, career preparation and community service. Under her leadership,  the Northside Club started selling snacks to Club members during the afternoon to raise money for the Keystone team to travel to a youth leadership conference. They doubled their profits and the team flew to the Florida for the event.

One opportunity in particular stood out to Rodesha: the Youth of the Year program. As she watched her fellow students become leaders, she was eager to take on similar responsibilities. Every year, she pestered Club directors to let her apply for Youth of the Year.

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“For the last four years, since I’ve been in high school, I’ve wanted to do Youth of the Year. But my Club director always said there would come a time when I was ready; we had to give everyone else a chance first,” she said.

This year, she asked, like she did every year, if she could participate in Youth of the Year. It was Rodesha’s time to shine: The staff said yes, and she kicked off the process with an interview with Marvin Green, the Northside Club director. He gave her the green light to begin the program.

Preparing for competition

Metro Richmond’s 2018 Youth of the Year came together to develop leadership skills and plan their speeches in an open workshop format. Led by Micah White, a local comedian and philanthropist, the Youth of the Year developed strong relationships with one another.

“We’ve grown really close to each other,” Rodesha said. “I didn’t just start a competition: I made friendships. I built a bond with people I know I can rely on or text whenever I need advice.”

Rodesha said she was one of the last to memorize her speech because it was so long, about seven pages. But thanks to the encouragement and support of Micah White and her fellow young leaders, she memorized her speech flawlessly.

 The 2018 Youth of the Year and Junior Youth of the Year, representing Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond.

The 2018 Youth of the Year and Junior Youth of the Year, representing Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond.

Backed by her teammates, Rodesha was nominated to represent Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond at the statewide Youth of the Year competition.

The girl who was previously too shy to talk to anyone was now delivering speeches to large audiences.

The Virginia competition for Youth of the Year was held in nearby Charlottesville, and Rodesha began her rigorous—and creative—preparation for the event. On their way to the competition, staff made Rodesha stand up and deliver her speech in front of strangers in a busy restaurant. And the night before Rodesha’s presentation, Jade Tabb, Northside’s senior program director, came up with the idea to stage a reality TV-style competition with a panel of judges. Jade had Rodesha deliver her speech in the hotel room and pretend that she was being assessed as if she were a contestant.

With all of this inventive prep behind her, Rodesha felt sure of her speech but wasn’t sure how the day’s competition would end. She focused on connecting with everyone who interviewed her and nailed her memorized speech. During her final interview panel, before a table of judges, Rodesha remembers that she answered one question well. They asked her, “How do you feel that five men and only one woman are on this panel? Do you feel intimidated?” Rodesha replied, “I don’t feel intimidated at all, because I believe that men and women are equal.” The panel nodded, pleased, and Rodesha felt a glimmer of hope.

When she heard that she won, Rodesha was surprised and proud. She immediately gave credit back to her Club and her fellow Youth of the Year leaders.

“I didn’t do this alone. I couldn’t have done this process without them,” Rodesha said. “Their speeches gave me inspiration for my speech. Their struggles helped me figure out what I’m going through.”

A bright future

As Rodesha prepares to represent Virginia at the regional Youth of the Year competition in Atlanta, she is also thinking about her future.

She plans to attend a four-year university and has been accepted at Virginia State University, a historically black college in Petersburg. Rodesha would like to be close to home, to look after her family, and to continue to invest in the metro Richmond community.

“I want Richmond to be looked at as one of the main places in the United States for business,” she said. “I want to see black people blossoming. I want to see everyone graduating from high school, going to college, starting businesses in Richmond.”

 Rodesha delivering her speech at BGCMR LIVE! in April 2018.

Rodesha delivering her speech at BGCMR LIVE! in April 2018.

Rodesha plans to major in psychology and later attend graduate school so that she can become a psychiatrist. Her big dream is to create an innovative center to care for children in the foster system, drawing inspiration from the programs that nurtured her at Club. “The Club has given me so many experiences,” she said. “There are so many programs that I’ve blossomed through.”

When she thinks about her younger siblings and other kids at the Club, she is full of encouragement. Her advice is clear: “Go to the Club and stay in Boys & Girls Clubs. Make the most of your experience there. Be involved in programs. Ultimately, this is your life, and you have to choose the positive things and how you look at the world. If you look at the world in a positive way, positive things will follow you.”