It's impossible to believe this girl was ever shy. With a smile that can light up the darkest corners of a memory, 18-year-old Antonisha Fuller talked about the hard road that brought her to the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula, and now, nine years later, led to her selection as its Menlo Park Youth of the Year.
"What child wants to come into this world asking to have a mother as a high school dropout and a father as a drug abuser? Imagine the experience of instability, living in 18 different homes before the age of 17," she said, speaking before the City Council on April 5. "Unfortunately this is my reality."
She shared images from childhood: Standing in the rain, barefooted, a 9-year-old girl in thin clothes waiting for a father who'd forgotten to come get her. A mother who said she wished Antonisha and her five siblings had never been born. Finding escape in books, especially "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls and "Three Little Words" by Ashley Rhodes-Courter, works which inspired her to start writing her own story and dream of a better life.
"I tell you tonight, the cycle stops with me, Antonisha Fuller," she finished.
She is one of six children, the only one to earn a diploma when she graduates from Menlo-Atherton High School this year.
Along the way, the young girl found family at the Boys & Girls Club.
Ruby Fong, teen director at the club, radiates a warmth that explains the close bond she has with the kids.
"She's like a mother to me. I never told her that," Antonisha said.
Of all the kids at the club, Ms. Fong observed, Antonisha is the one she relies upon to get things done, and done well.
She remembered a time when staff was struggling with a group of 9- and 10-year old girls. Antonisha said without prompting, you know what, I think we need to do something about that.'
"I said, what? She said, 'Yeah, we need to start a dance class.' So she did, and those girls still look at her as a mentor, even now that they're in middle school," Ms. Fong said.
Ms. Fong was often overcome with emotion while speaking about Antonisha, amusement mingling with love and respect.
"What girl does that?" Ms. Fong said, laughing, as she remembered Antonisha getting a mohawk right before facing a panel of judges interviewing the award candidates. "I was mortified when she did that! Then I was like, alright, Antonisha, we'll just make it work. She's not afraid to be true to herself."
Antonisha described her favorite activities as dancing, singing, laughing, and, yes, accessorizing. Ten years from now, she said she wants to be a psychologist. Ms. Fong said whatever path her protege takes, she'll be an advocate of some kind, putting herself in a position to help others.
"Things usually work out in the end." "What if they don't?" "That just means you haven't come to the end yet." — Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
She hopes to be accepted into AmeriCorps in the fall, and sent to volunteer in New York, a city she's never seen. The dream carries anxiety as well as promise.
"I'm scared that if I needed some help, or I didn't have anywhere to go or if something happened, I wouldn't have anyone to go to," Antonisha said, voice growing quiet as she stopped twisting the desk chair she sat in, and looked into the distance.
Then the smile returned to her face. "But if you get yourself lost, you just find your way back home."