After 11 years of attending the Boys and Girls Club on Marsh Road, Ja’Lynn Gray was named the 2013 North Carolina Youth of the Year.
Ja’Lynn, 18, started going to the club in first grade with her older brother when her mother needed a safe place for them to go after school.
Eleven years later, as a graduating senior from Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, Ja’Lynn (pronounced jay-lin) competed in Wilmington for the state title after winning the local Youth of the Year Award. She had an interview with a panel of judges, gave a speech and presented letters of recommendation. She won the state award and went to Atlanta for the regional competition. Though she didn’t advance, winning the state title was significant.
“I don’t remember the last time someone from Charlotte made state. It may have been 10 years ago,” said Rose Cummings, a volunteer at the club. Cummings, a professional speech coach, helped her polish her speech and rehearse her interviews for the past few months.
Ja’Lynn impressed judges with her academic involvement – she’s been a member of the student council, National Honor Society, National Technical Honor Society, Health Occupations Students of America and the NAACP. She also led an anti-bullying campaign where she had fellow students give testimonials and sign pledges.
But what set Ja’Lynn apart, Cummings said, was her speech and the reason she was motivated to succeed.
Ja’Lynn and her mother and brother lived in what she called an unsafe neighborhood near the Boys and Girls Club on Marsh. “My neighborhood was definitely a place I wouldn’t want my child to be,” she said. “The club has been a safe haven for me.”
She said she always wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer when she saw people on television who were successful. But no one in her family had gone to college, and she didn’t even know college was attainable until she was in third grade, when a college volunteer in the club talked to her about it.
When Ja’Lynn’s mom, April Ratliff, became ill when Ja’Lynn was in the fifth grade, she realized her real calling was in nursing.
“The service aspect of health care is with nursing,” she said. “I really like helping people.”
But what really motivated Ja’Lynn to succeed was watching her older brother, who had been a star student, fall between the cracks. He became a teenage father and dropped out of high school.
“Having that survival instinct worked in my favor,” Ja’Lynn said. “I wanted to make my mom proud in the sense that she didn’t do it wrong.”
She said that in her neighborhood, she saw of lot of teenage mothers, and had access to sex, drugs and alcohol.
“It took a lot for me to know that was not the life I wanted to choose. I kept myself away from that. It was pretty hard,” she said. “I had to remind myself I had goals, I had dreams, I could get myself out of situations. I knew I didn’t always want to live in the ghetto.”
Her mother said she is very proud of her daughter.
“Just to see her ... turning those negatives into positives and becoming the young lady she has is just awesome, it really is,” she said.
Ja’Lynn and her mother have since moved to a different neighborhood, and Ja’Lynn is now getting ready to attend the University of Virginia – on a full ride – in the fall.
“Ja’Lynn is amazing,” said one of her high school teachers, Tricia Barnes-Parkins. “She just is very strong, just very committed – I don’t know how else to put it, but strong and committed.”
Barnes-Parkins, who taught Ja’Lynn Advanced Placement English and Leadership & Development, said she was instrumental in revamping student council’s bylaws and expectations and was a good example of leadership. “(She’s) consistently a serious individual about where she wants to go, and whatever expectations she has of others, she expects that for herself.”
Ja’Lynn said she wants to study to be a nurse practitioner and wants to do mission medical work. She dreams of someday opening a clinic.
“I’m just ready to experience more things,” she said, “and really step outside my comfort zone and learn more.”
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