At Ranson Middle, Destiny Wade-Gilliard is all smiles. Walking down the hall between classes, she grins at classmates, waves hello and greets friends with hugs.
“When you smile, everybody around you smiles,” Destiny, 15, says. She participates in class, loves her friends and has a thirst for knowledge. She dreams of attending Spelman College and someday becoming an obstetric gynecologist.
Her teachers, her mother and even Destiny herself say that she is unrecognizable from the person she was at the beginning of the school year.
Destiny was born in Haiti, and while her mother is Haitian, her father is Indian. She spent some of her early years with her father in India, and was outcast, she said, because of her skin color and her inability to speak Hindi.
She moved back to Haiti at age 7, then to Charleston at 9. She, her mom and younger sister lived in public housing in Charleston, which Destiny recalls with a wrinkled nose. She said she had to learn English fast to keep up. “People used to tease me because I had a very ugly accent,” she said.
In the fifth grade, her family moved to Charlotte in hopes of a better life, and Destiny began middle school.
She says she was bullied, so she switched to Ranson. The new school didn’t prove much better. “I used to get bullied in the seventh grade. It was simple stuff.”
She became angry and depressed and one day, got into a fight.
Her mother, Octavia Wade, said she worried about her daughter: “She would come home crying.”
The bullying, and the fight, set the stage for this year – eighth grade – and “a lot of drama,” Destiny said.
Destiny said she was more sad about having poor self-esteem than she was about not having friends. Her youth leader at church noticed something was wrong.
“ ‘You have to build yourself up first,’ she told me,” Destiny said. “I had to tell myself, ‘I am something. I am going to succeed.’ ”
She heard that message, but didn’t take it to heart until she heard her younger sister echoing her negative sentiments, saying people were calling her names for her skin color and petite size.
“ ‘Why, you’re beautiful!’ I told her, and she said, ‘You don’t think so about yourself.’
“That really hit me.”
So Destiny came up with a deal: They would do self-affirmations together.
Each day the sisters, smiling in front of a mirror, recited, “I am beautiful. I am kind. I love myself because I am mine.”
Destiny said she realized she had to learn to love herself first before trying to make friends at school.
“I just kept saying it over and over: ‘OK, I’m pretty,’ and it started building up.”
Destiny’s social studies teacher, Kayla Romero, said the difference in Destiny was palpable. At the beginning of the year, Destiny was quiet and kept to herself, she said.
Romero has only taught Destiny this year, but said she knows her grades suffered in sixth and seventh grades, and that they started to get better in eighth grade. After Destiny’s personal turnaround, her grades got even better.
“She’s just become more and more active in class and participating and sparking discussion and raising good questions in social studies class.”
As her grades were improving, the Revolutionary Club started at Ranson, in January.
The club, started by Romero, is funded by Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership and Investment for Transformation). Project L.I.F.T. helps fund projects at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that address educational issues in the West Charlotte corridor.
The club helped Ranson girls start helping the community – and themselves. They’ve learned how to properly interview for a job, prepare for the SAT, do yoga and even how to shake someone’s hand.
“It’s a beautiful program,” Romero said. “Nothing but positivity.”
And it was just what Destiny needed for her confidence. “It was a great experience for me to learn how to build myself up,” she said.
Now Destiny wants to encourage other girls, and she often tells them that they are beautiful, too.
“I cannot believe how she gets respect from every single person in this school,” Romero said. “Girls come in from lunch and they’re beaming, and it’s because Destiny told them they’re beautiful – and they’re probably not going to hear that again for the rest of the day.”
Destiny’s mother said it’s been a long road with Destiny but that she couldn’t be prouder of her daughter.
“Destiny has grown to be a very mature, successful, intelligent person,” she said. “I’m proud of what she’s grown up to be. Every time I look at her, I want to cry.”
Destiny said she looks forward to the future and leading a life helping others.
“I’m too excited to be sad,” she said. “There are too many great things in the world to be sad. When I wake up, it’s a good thing because I’m alive.”