Story by Tiffany Lam | Photos by Brandon Chew
She's the life of the party. She gets along with everyone, cracks jokes with a smile that never leaves her face, and has an energy that shines brighter than the lights in a classroom.
Known as "TaiTai" to everyone at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, Nateja, who lives in Menlo Park, is a 13-year-old with a voice that's meant to be heard.
Yet, while her positive energy draws attention even in a room filled with other students, behind her vivacious personality lie hardships she doesn't often display.
"I have an absent father," Nateja said in a speech to more than 50 guests at the Boys & Girls Clubs Youth of the Year ceremony in Menlo Park in February. It doesn't only affect her, she said, but her mother and two younger siblings as well.
But Nateja chooses to learn from her struggles. "His lack of presence has helped me grow closer to my mom," she said. "I make sure I say goodnight to her every night so she knows I appreciate and love her."
"My family, friends, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula are what kept me going," Nateja said. "Being able to come to the clubhouse has helped me overcome the obstacle of not having my father around."
The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula serves 1,700 kids, from kindergartners through 12th-graders, through three clubhouses and six school sites in Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and Redwood City.
For Nateja, the hours she spends outside of the clubhouse aren't all free time.
"I help my mom around the house," she said. "Sometimes I wash dishes or do laundry and sometimes I play outside with my siblings."
This summer, thanks to the Boys & Girls Clubs, a typical day held more than housework. Twice a week, as part of the club's summer teen program, she ventured to Google to experience the everyday operations in different departments.
The summer program was split between kindergarten through eighth-grade programming, held at the Belle Haven Community School, and teen programming, held at the Moldaw-Zaffaroni Clubhouse in East Palo Alto.
More than 300 students -- 50 from Menlo Park -- registered for the summer programs this year. The programs were launched five years ago, and "this was by far the most 'evolved' version," noted club development director Sean Mendy, in terms of engaging corporate partners.
For a lot of students, the club provided something beyond just extracurricular activities. Nateja, who wants to become a doctor specializing in family medicine, finds inspiration just by being there.
"When I'm at the Boys & Girls Club, I feel safe, happy, and accomplished," she said. "It makes me feel like I can go to college and anything is possible for me."
The summer programs aim to help at-risk teens prepare for diverse careers.
"We are closing the achievement gap," said Mr. Mendy. "We want them to be economically self-sufficient."
Students participate in one of 18 core career tracks that include law and order for those interested in being lawyers, "Teach The Youth" for aspiring teachers, digital filmmaking, and culinary skills, all taught at the East Palo Alto clubhouse.
"I've been really motivated lately," noted Alexis, a 17-year-old student in the video storytelling and production track, where students learn how to prepare for interviews, and set up lighting and camera angles. "The Boys & Girls Club has taught me that anybody can do anything. We're all equal."
Nateja is part of the Google "elite" track in the program. Participants in elite tracks apply to go off-site to Google in Mountain View, the DLA Piper law firm in Palo Alto, or LinkedIn in Mountain View.
These participants attended 10 to 12 sessions at one of the companies, each day visiting a different department and solving a team "day in the life" challenge.
"The goal is to highlight real-world problems in a given field or department," said Jeff Feinman, vice president of the clubhouse and its high school program. "In the process, youth are exposed to fields they have never heard of."
The Google partnership is an example of how corporations can engage teens, according to Mr. Feinman. "Many of them want to support these youth, but don't necessarily know how to best make it happen."
Nateja attended every Google outing. "When the human resources department hosted us, we got to experience choosing which people to hire," she said.
She found the experience rewarding because it led her to a bunch of opportunities, she said. "I may not want to go into tech, but being at Google helped me build presentation skills and learn more."