FEARLESS: Recipients of scholarships given out by BUILD Chicago on March 15 pose with their winnings. | AustinTalks

They have overcome all sorts of challenges – parents divorcing, a father going to prison, multiple moves, bad grades, trouble paying rent and problems with peers.

But that’s not what stood out on a recent Thursday night at the headquarters of BUILD, a nonprofit that works with young people in Austin and other Chicago neighborhoods.

It was the spirit, the resilience, the power of each story being told by six young people – stories that resonated with so many of the friends, family members and West Side residents who packed BUILD’s headquarters on March 15.

This is an annual event at BUILD; the public speaking contest has been held each of the last eight springs. This year’s participants – ranging in age from 16 to just 9 years old – was as memorable as all the others, perhaps more so.

“This is the most unique group we’ve had,” said Judge Pat Spratt, who spent weeks working with the students as they developed their speeches.

LaQuisha Johnson, 16, began her speech with spoken word: “I’m uniquely spectacular, one of a kind. . . . I’m inspired, desired, I’m wonderfully weird . . .  I’m daring and bold. I’m a treasure to hold. I am God in disguise . . . Life becomes brighter because I am here . . . I cannot be contained.”

While living in Las Vegas, LaQuisha hooked up with the wrong people, stopped going to school and started smoking. When she returned to Chicago, “that’s when my adventure started.”

The Phillips Academy High School junior made the honor roll, placed third place in a city-wide August Wilson monologue contest and joined the swimming team, soon becoming captain.

She credits BUILD with helping her become more confident and providing a place where she and other students feel safe and there’s no judgment.

Alexandria Navarrio Sanchez talked about what her life has been like since her dad went to prison when she was 9. At times, the teen said she turned to the wrong people for affection and let what others thought or said about her affect her.

Alexandria got involved with BUILD’s art and music programs, which showed her and her sister, who is also a participant, “something different.”

“BUILD has given me the opportunity to find myself and build myself during the most difficult times.” Before coming to BUILD, “I was a hot mess,” said Alexandria, who went from earning C’s and D’s as a sophomore to now earning a 4.0.

“I am in a good way now, and I’m looking forward to my future.”

The youngest participant – Emmanuel Malone – stood on a stool to deliver his speech.

“My neighborhood can be dangerous, but it also can be a lot of fun,” said the Austin resident, adding that he likes to learn every day. His “great success” is football, and he also likes math.

When Mo’nai McClellan had an issue with a male friend, staffers at BUILD told her that ignoring him was not the way to handle the situation. Communication is the only bandage that heals this wound, they told her.

So Mo’nai and the boy talked through their problems and now are friends again. Mo’Nai said when some of her female peers have gotten into altercations over boys she’s urged them to focus on their education.

“This is my BUILD story.”

The 10 judges were so impressed with the speeches, they decided to award three 1st place prizes of $1,000 scholarships to LaQuisha, Mo’Nai and Alexandria.

David Daniel was awarded a $500 scholarship, Khalil Griffin received a $250 scholarship, and Emmanuel received the “fearless” award.

Editor’s note: AustinTalks Editor Suzanne McBride served as one of the judges.

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