At 12, Felecia Ayietan was one of the youngest campers during the inauguration of Hope4Girls Africa. Now, approaching her 14th birthday next week, I can't help but think how far she's come and how much further she will reach.
When I was first introduced to Felecia in 2009, I immediately noticed two things: her height and her painfully shy personality. At 6-foot-6 it's hard not to be noticed and even harder to hide. At such a tender age, when teasing and bullying are prevalent, if the right things aren't told to you or you aren't in the right environment, it can be quite difficult to accept yourself. I know how bullying affected me when I first came to the U.S. I could only imagine what life was like for her. She instantly became my focus.
Felecia had never played basketball before and at her first camp she was with 64 other girls who were ready to hit the courts. Because she was so shy and had never played before, she had plenty of excuses not to participate. But I was relentless. I know how sports boosted my self-confidence and allowed me to find my place in life, and I knew that Felecia, more than anyone else there, could benefit as much from it.
Boy did she put up a fight! She cried on the court until we'd let her come off, but as soon as she stopped crying I would put her right back on. It wasn't easy -- she didn't talk to me for three out of the five days of camp -- but by the end of our battle, I knew we had broken through and positive change had begun. After camp, her mom traveled four hours just to thank me and to tell me that her daughter was different now. It was then I truly knew we had achieved something special.
That 12-year-old has grown so much and I think she has gotten taller as well! At every camp I find a more confident, self-assured Felecia. She's a troublemaker now, and she has become a celebrity to her peers. As is the case in most impoverished areas, there's a scarcity of basketball courts and her school doesn't have a team. But still, she manages to walk, whenever she can, to the only court in her community.
She may or may not end up a star athlete, but that doesn't matter. At Hope4Girls all we care about is her happiness and helping her find her place in the world!