A little support can go a long way. An afterschool program has the power to lift a student to great confidence, and The Boys & Girls Clubs of Thurston County, Rochester branch has done just that. Longtime member Alizabeth Ashton was energized by her experiences and marched forward to compete in the Youth of the Year program setting a new historical record for Thurston County and the club. She is the first from Rochester and the first from Thurston County to secure the Boys & Girls Clubs of Washington State Youth of the Year win.
Alizabeth’s involvement with the club started when she was in the third grade. Facing bullying, family struggles and two significant medical diagnosis by the age of 16, she received life changing support and encouragement from her local club after school. “Growing up with the Rochester Boys & Girls Club was my safe place,” says Alizabeth. “I could just be myself and not be judged.”
In Alizabeth’s 2021 Youth of the Year speech, she narrated how she had heard numerous apologies throughout her life for the struggles before her. She was diagnosed with a motor skill delay and considered mute until she was about three, and she was later diagnosed as a teen with ankylosing spondylitis. Her medical condition was identified but answers about what to do next were not apparent. “I could let the disease set boundaries for me,” says Alizabeth in her speech, “or I could modify and set boundaries for it.”
Through the support of the Boys & Girls Clubs, Alizabeth has thrived and grown exponentially. Initially spending time after school as a member, she later got her first job at the same branch as program staff working with kids firsthand and planning activities to keep them active and motivated.
“I’ve watched her grow in her confidence and instill those qualities in the kids,” says Heather Harris, program director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Thurston County. “I feel very honored to know her. She always brings her A-game. It doesn’t matter what kind of day I’m having, her energy carries throughout the club.”
Supporting kids in a variety of ways and watching them go on to be successful is what the Boys & Girls Clubs of Thurston County does. The organization serves more than 2,500 children throughout seven locations in Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, Tenino, Rochester, Yelm and the Raj Manhas Activity Center. Amid pandemic shut downs, it was among the small percentage of clubs nationwide that could remain open. County clubs offer tutoring to help members with academics and enhance membership services to enrollees who are experiencing homelessness. They offer additional activities such as summer camp, gym and computer lab, just to name a few. The aim is to equip members with the skills and confidence they will need to be happy and successful.
Alizabeth credits the Boys & Girls Clubs afterschool program and Youth of the Year competition as being instrumental in preparing her for what she will do next. “The Youth of the Year program has put my name out there,” says Alizabeth of the event. “It’s an amazing thing that a whole organization will back you up.”
Like the clubs, Alizabeth continued to follow her ambitions despite a pandemic. Having first heard of the competition in 2016 when her brother competed and having already tested the waters as a contestant in eighth grade herself, she was no stranger to what she was up against.
Members participate in a variety of club programs learning valuable life lessons, interacting with mentors and practicing their own leadership skills. One of those programs Alizabeth participated in was the SMART Girls program, skills mastery and resilience training, which she says taught her healthy habits and developed her self-esteem and speaking skills. Paired with her high school extracurricular involvement, she built an impressive resume. At the state level, she received feedback about her speech, participated in a mock interview and worked with other contestants in solving an escape room. She prepared three questions for a town hall meeting with Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. A meeting with Governor Jay Inslee was arranged, and Alizabeth asked him a question inquiring how he felt regarding youth being able to speak out about bullying and special needs, two things she had experienced herself.
Due to her own health experiences and being an active club member, Alizabeth plans to embrace a community support role in the medical profession after college. Her goal is to graduate from Eastern Washington University and earn a degree in child life studies and become a child life specialist at a facility like Seattle Children’s Hospital. There, she would be able to provide information, support and encouragement to kids and families who have just received a medical diagnosis. Graduating in 2021 from high school with not only a diploma, but an associate of arts degree from Centralia College and a positive spirit for achieving one’s ambitions, Alizabeth is on her way to success.