REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (KGO) -- High school senior Sarahi Perez is a true "club kid."
Joining Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula (BGCP) in the fifth grade, Perez was grappling with persistent bullying and self-doubt. Today, she is a teen staff member and fierce youth advocate for those that have been in her shoes before.
Due to her mother's hectic working schedule, Perez grew up in after school programs. She decided to take advantage of academic support and the center's other resources.
Today, Perez works in the center after school multiple times a week and participates in programs like Keystone, Youth of the Year and a technology fellowship. While she's not working, she catches up with familiar faces.
Bullying has been a constant in Perez's life - one that even lingers today.
"I've been bullied, and I've helped other people being bullied," she said. "Me, I was always bullied because I looked a little different from the rest of the kids. I would always act more different, and I'd always be on the taller side for females."
For Perez, helping those dealing with bullying is a delicate process: advocating for them, being an upstander, but also, giving them a voice, ensuring they are heard.
When Perez was in middle school, she caught someone being bullied. She provided the victim the ultimatum: "Either you go tell someone or be an advocate for yourself or I'll do it, but I'll make sure your voice is also heard." Afterwards, the bully was given the appropriate punishment.
Associate Director of Redwood City Clubhouse Cherie Kabba, affectionately known as Ms. Chillin', has developed a close relationship with Perez over the years.
Perez refers to Kabba as her "BGCP auntie or mom," an individual who has seen and contributed to her personal growth.
Kabba remembers Perez being "a little quiet" during their first encounters. Kabba soon recruited Perez to a technology fellowship to pique any potential interests.
"I noticed she was really outspoken, a little rough around the edges. She had an opinion for any and every topic," Kabba said.
Kabba said Perez keeps everyone on their toes - pointing out injustices or violations to policy.
"I'll get a text message and she'll be like 'Oh Ms. Chillin' this kid is out of dress code. Or I think there's going to be a fight over here. Or this kid is not speaking to anyone today,'" she said.
Kabba said Perez has the unique ability to navigate different spaces because of her many years with BGCP. She knows the staff; she's engaged in the programming; she is a leader, Kabba said.
Kabba will receive texts from Perez asking about the game plan for that afternoon or asking where she is in the center. According to Kabba, this does not stem from boredom, but a genuine interest in bettering the center.
"Whatever you ask her to do - she's going to do it," she said.
Perez is not the only one that has undergone a transformation since coming to the center.
"They come in really quiet, kinda in their shells and through getting to know other staff members and engaging in programs, they develop and blossom," Kabba said. "They don't just change physically. You can tell they change in how they advocate for each other, how they speak about world issues -- it's just a world of difference."
Not only has Perez found herself, she has found a family.
"Everyone here is your brother, your sister, your little cousin, your nephew, all of that," Perez said.
She plans to pursue a career helping others, possibly pharmacy work or something in the psychology field.
BGCP serves more than 5,000 students from kindergarten to career across 29 sites within San Mateo County.
The Boys & Girls Clubs vision is that "all young people grow up to lead fulfilling lives, fueled by their passions, talents and a love of learning," CEO of BGCP Jenny Obiaya said.
This boils down to ensuring students have choices in life and equitable access to opportunities that help them thrive in and outside of the classroom, Obiaya adds.
The reality of San Mateo County is its staggering wealth divides - a fact that BGCP works to remedy.
"Most of the students we serve are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged," Obiaya said. "That means a family of four makes less than $50,000 a year and yet they are growing up in the shadow of some of the wealthiest neighborhoods, literally just minutes away from some of the most affluent zip codes in the entire nation."
The center's resources are entirely free: ranging from tutoring, college advising to mental health services to enrichment opportunities like culinary classes and competitive sports leagues.
Obiaya stresses that external factors, like the ability to afford certain opportunities, should not be the sole determination of one's future.
"We're saying, you know the young people here in our community are just as deserving of these opportunities and resources," she said. "Your hard work, the strength of your character, those things are the things that should matter."
Obiaya says giving to BGCP is "truly an investment in our young people and an investment in our community and our future."
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