At just 7 years old, Kai Hartman walked through the doors of Douglas County Boys & Girls Club feeling very shy and insecure – all because of her “crooked smile.”
Kai was often teased and bullied by her classmates at school, so she didn’t know what to expect at her new Club. “Would the kids make fun of me? Should I even talk at all? Remember, if you don’t laugh, they won’t see your smile,” she told herself.
“I stopped laughing altogether because people couldn’t laugh at my smile if they never saw it.”
The second-grader stayed to herself after school – a method that only backfired, deepening the pain she felt over what she and some others believed was a “flaw” that would hold her back from making friends and achieving her dreams.
But all of this changed when a staff member at the Club encouraged Kai to sign up for Boys & Girls Club’s Marel Brown Creative Writing Competition.
The pint-sized girl went on stage, opened her heart, and shared the agony she’d been feeling all along.
“As soon as I got off stage, the Club staff members said not only was my smile beautiful, but so was my writing. Through their encouragement, I found a passion and talent in creative writing and ‘til this day it’s something I still want to pursue for the rest of my life – all because the staff taught me how to embrace everything I am.”
Today, that once self-conscious 7-year-old now stands tall as a confident 18-year-old who is the 2017/2018 Youth of the Year for Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta.
Youth of the Year is the highest honor which recognizes teens for working hard, investing in themselves, and demonstrating leadership in their schools, Clubs, and communities.
Kai called winning Youth of the Year a “dream come true.”
“There’s no such thing as an impractical dream unless you tell yourself it is.”
Kai, who has been a Club member for 10 years, said “The Club staff showed me how to explore my interests and use them as pieces in discovering myself.”
Today, Kai loves the person she has found.
In addition to earning a 3.7 grade point average, Kai holds an impressive list of accolades, including being published in the Marel Brown Creative Writing Anthology, which features artwork from some of the best and brightest Boys & Girls Club members around the city.
With a heart for giving back, Kai also raised money to form her own cheerleading program at her Club to provide a positive outlet for girl members who cannot afford to participate in school sports. In her spare time, Kai enjoys cheerleading at school and volunteering at a courthouse and food pantry in her community.
Kai credits her biological family and her Boys & Girls Club family for shaping her into a young leader.
As for her smile, Kai says “I no longer hate what I see in the mirror. My Club fixed my mirror. It taught me that none of my goals are unrealistic and although my physical features are different, they are beautiful and it’s beautiful to be different.”
More importantly, Kai says she’s learned that inner qualities like, kindness and integrity, are more valuable than outward appearances could ever be.
As Youth of the Year, Kai plans to inspire kids and teens through her personal journey.
It’s also a message she hopes to weave into her work as a television screenwriter, a career goal she wants to pursue after she graduates from Howard University.
To find out how you can help shape young leaders like Kai, visit www.bgcma.org/getinvolved.