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Born and raised in Minnesota, I’m now a college freshman, on my own for the first time, working towards a double major and two minors. I’m motivated, happy, and excited about my future.

But my life hasn’t always been full of hope and happiness.

My parents divorced when I was three years old. My mom, my four-year-old sister, and I were barely getting by, living paycheck to paycheck. My dad was in and out of jail and, when he was home, he drank too much. Throughout my childhood, I had a deep feeling of anger that I couldn’t escape.

I was bullied in middle school, starting with kids pushing me and calling me names. I hated going to school. It came to a boiling point when one of the bullies began harassing my older sister. I was fiercely protective of her. I got into an out-of-control, physical fight causing me to attend an alternative learning program and deal with the legalities of the fight.

During my 8th grade year at the alternative school, I met Mrs. Angell – appropriately named – because she took me under her wing. Without her, I would have dropped out of school and probably ended up in jail. She gave me space to learn, taught me about community service, and even called me when I wasn’t at school. Things began to look up.

But when I entered 9th grade, I had to attend the local high school with some of the kids who had bullied me in middle school. I felt constantly terrified, and it took every ounce of courage just to make it to school every day. Fortunately, I persevered and found solace in volunteering and mentoring a homeless 8th grade boy.

One day I was called to the counselor’s office and arrived to find the police there. “What did I do?” I nervously asked. To my surprise, the school counselor had been impressed with my volunteer work –especially the mentoring – and wanted to acknowledge me as an emerging leader.  Me?  Really?  The police officers were there to congratulate me!

The counselor introduced me to Kaleidoscope Connect*, an integrative youth development framework focusing on building webs of support.  I was invited to go to Montana to attend a week-long training event.  Later that fall, I went to Alaska where I took part in an intense, 5-day “PHlight Club” Academy.  

These were life-changing events for me, and I learned strategies that I still use to this day.

I learned that in order to become resilient I needed to develop a web of support, consisting of at least 5 caring adults (Anchors) who could support me, see my unique talents and intelligences, teach and coach me, and have high expectations. These Anchors throw tangible and intangible strings that develop a web of support for me to bounce on. 

I participated in connecting activities to learn about 7 “Phactors,” which are practical ways to hone my strengths for success. Now that I understand what I need to succeed, I know how to build a web of support anywhere I go that supports me in anything I do.   

It didn’t end with PHlight Club. I was excited and motivated by what I learned and became very involved with Kaleidoscope Connect. By 11th grade, I was sharing my knowledge with my school and community. I was even chosen by the Minnesota legislature to co-chair the Education Committee for their Youth Counsel.  

I truly believe that Kaleidoscope Connect helped me find my true self.  I’ve blossomed.  It helped me find the courage to leave my home state of Minnesota and venture to Wisconsin for college. I continue to make (and keep) connections wherever I go.  

If I had one wish, it would be that every kid could learn about the web of support so they could feel like they belong. — Natalee

*formerly known as Helping Kids Succeed and in partnership with United Way of Hastings