Every day I read stories about young people struggling to graduate from high school, to stay healthy, and to escape the violence in their neighborhoods. In many communities, boys and girls are at home after school with no adult care or supervision. They have little hope and little opportunity to succeed.
Last week in Washington, D.C. I was honored to stand with Denzel Washington, Ron Howard and LeBron James as we launched a new public service advertising campaign, “Great Futures Start Here,” designed to address those issues. Denzel and I are alumni of the Boys & Girls Clubs, and Ron and LeBron have given their time and resources to help our youth.
I’m so proud to be a part of this program because when I was a little girl growing up in Glen Cove, N.Y., there was a Boys & Girls Club down the street from my house. I am blessed to be from a strong, supportive family, bit I am also blessed by my involvement with the Club. The staff there did for me what they’ve done for kids for more than 100 years: They showed me that I could have a great future.
The Club in my neighborhood was a place to bond with friends, a place you could go to outside of school - after you did your homework - and play sports. It also provided an opportunity to get involved in activities and stay off the streets. I took dance classes there and practiced cheerleading and “stepping.”
Back then, the idea of including girls in the club was still new, but the executive director, Louis Sanford, made sure that the girls had plenty of activities and support. Over the years, Mr. Sanford was a mentor and a role model for me, and he was key in making me who I am today. I didn’t realize in those early years that all that fun was sending me the powerful message of “Yes, you can!” that has stayed with me all my life. That came not just from my parents, but also from the staff at the Club.
My mom was a computer networking engineer and Dad worked as an auto electronic engineer. My grandfather was president of the Glen Cove NAACP branch for 25 years. In addition to their examples, I had the benefit of the adult staff at the Club challenging me to excel. Together, they instilled positive values that still influence me as an adult.
Both my parents were active in the Club, in fact, I’ve been involved in the Boys & Girls Club since before I was born – my mother was teaching dance there while she was expecting me! And, my very first performance onstage was there at a talent show. The Club gave me the opportunity to explore many interests and talents that have profoundly influenced my life, including, of course, dancing and singing.
When I talk with young people, I tell them that when you dream big, outside of the box, it does so much for you and takes you to the next level. It gives you the courage and strength to never settle for less. It’s not about being vain. It’s about a sense of accomplishment and serving as a positive role model for younger kids.
It is so amazing to have a place to let kids know, “You can do it.” Sometimes they might not get that at home, they might not even get that at school, but they can come to the Boys & Girls Clubs and hear, “Listen, there is so much out there you can do. You can be great and we want you to create a great future for yourself.”
Every child – whether they live in a big city, small town, Native American community, or military installation – can achieve a great future. You just have to find the right place to start. For me and millions of others that place was the Boys & Girls Club.
Grammy Award-Winning singer/songwriter, actor and author Ashanti, an alumna of the Glen Cove Boys & Girls Club, was inducted into Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Alumni Hall of Fame in 2008. That same year she designated Boys & Girls Clubs of America and her local Glen Cove Club as the recipient of funds raised through her participation in Cartier’s Love Bracelet promotion.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.