At the not so ripe age of 3, she and her family immigrated from Ethiopia, landing right in City Heights, the melting pot of San Diego. A s a kindergartener, Mehalet, who only spoke her native language, struggled communicating because unlike the Spanish speaking English learners, she had no one else who spoke the same language as she. She continued to learn English, and before I met her as a 4th grader, she was already proficient in English. With the recommendation of Edison Elementary principal, Derek Murchison, 4th grade Mehalet joined the Cesar Chavez Service Club. She quickly fit right in. She nominated herself, ran and was elected (by a landslide) as her club's Vice President, and of course, her leadership didn’t stop there. Her self-discipline and her ability to empathize, set a high standard for her fellow Chavistas. She had us all instantly HOOKED.
Fast forwarding to the 6th grade, Mehalet was the first of her class to join and assume a leadership role with the Wilson Middle School Chavista Club. In fact, because of Mehalet, we decided that our annual 8th grade Washington DC trip would include deserving 7th graders, because it made no sense to have dedicated Chavistas like her wait for a year when they were clearly mature and ready to learn from new experiences. Her whole middle school career, she juggled her responsibilities with band, Robotics Club, Chavez Club, all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. This July, she promoted to the 9th grade, and we were all there to proudly watch.
Continuing to fast forward to the July 2016 Chavez Club Board meeting, I don’t think anyone in the room could have predicted the impact that her words would have on our Board of Directors.
When Mehalet arrived, I spoke to her outside and asked her if she had something written, and she replied with “I know what I want to say, I’m speaking from my heart”. I knew then that I was about to be a witness to something great. We all expected her to be nervous to speak in front of an audience of adults, as though we forgot that this is what her Chavista Club experience had prepared her to do.
When she started speaking, her voice was calm and her words were eloquent. She spoke of how much fun the clubs were, and how she applies the clubs 10 values to her daily life. She then started to explain why she and other Chavistas religiously attend our weekly meetings.
"The club is my safe haven...schools confine themselves to teaching things like science, history, and math - things you need to graduate… The club teaches me things I need for my soul".
At that very moment, her words filled the everyone’s heart and very quickly reminded us why we chose this work. We guide, counsel, and educate young people, to ultimately nurture their soul so that they feel comfortable using their instincts to make effective change in their communities.
She also shared that the Chavez Club helps her make sense of the world when we discuss current events. Then, while holding back tears, Mehalet started to explain her family dynamic, and how applying the ten values to her life has made it easier for her handle her personal problems. She has known how to empathize since she was in the 4th grade, but with the help of her Chavez Club experiences, she has learned civility.
By the end of her testimony, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The surge of emotion that everyone in the room felt came from how moving of a speaker she was and from the realization that our work as Chavez Club staff members and board members can truly change the lives of the young people we work with in our clubs. With her story, Mehalet Shibre once again reminded us of our purpose, to help young people find out who they really are by giving them values to live by and confidence that they can make real changes in the world they live in.