Lookout Mountain Conservancy — an amazing organization where I was able to learn about and better myself. I think of LMC and The Howard School Leadership Program as the place where I found myself. And I kinda hate to admit it, but I have my sister, Jennifer, to thank for it.
My family is originally from Guatemala, and in 2012 we moved to Chattanooga. I was born in San Diego California, but my parents decided to move to Tennessee for a fresh start close to family. In my culture, family is everything — and in a Guatemalan family, everyone has a part to play. For the men, that role is providing for the family and always being strong.
Change is Hard
Being Guatemalan in Chattanooga has its challenges. From language barriers, to finding the food we were used to, we had to work hard to make it our home. Personally, I remember being an easy target at school because of my size. I quickly learned that I needed to find a way to not let my size determine who I am. In middle school, I didn’t really like much attention so I did my best to blend in with the crowd. But when I entered high school, everything changed. I was tired of always being the little guy. I was tired of getting picked on and always feeling like I had to prove to other people that I was strong.
It wasn’t just at school though. I had to be strong at home too, especially when it came to controlling my emotions. I was taught that showing emotion is a sign of weakness, and that strong men never show weakness. For a long time, whenever I would face challenges or get hurt, I would bury my feelings, my frustration, loneliness, and the feeling of being misunderstood. I bottled that part of myself up and eventually, it turned me into someone filled with anger. At home I didn’t speak to anyone unless I needed to and I pushed my family away. I was quiet and if I had a problem I would keep it to myself and deal with it alone. But I was struggling.
One summer, I realized my older sister, Jen, was gone all day and I was curious about what she was doing. She told me she had a job and I decided I wanted one as well. But it wasn’t just a job. I noticed a lot of changes in her. She seemed better. She was happier and we weren’t fighting as much. I asked her about the job and she told me about some of the things she worked on. It sounded pretty cool and she suggested that I try it out.
Learning to Stand Tall
Over the next year, I continued to struggle in school, and became even more closed off. I decided I was ready for a change. I knew I wanted to join the Leadership Program but I didn’t know how. So, I asked my sister for advice. Jen told me I had to get my grades up and get three recommendation letters from my teachers to apply. So I worked really hard, turned in all of my assignments, passed all my tests, and I applied to become an intern. The next step was to complete my volunteer hours. I had never really enjoyed being outside, I liked to play video games and spent most of my time inside. I didn’t know what to expect, but I went and did my hours and I remember really enjoying being outside. Don’t get me wrong, it was hot and the work was hard but I actually liked it. Even though I was out of my comfort zone, I felt like I was supposed to be there.
The interview may have been the hardest part. For a person who didn’t talk much, answering questions in front of a room full of people that I didn’t know was tough. They asked me questions like, “why do you want to be in this program?” I was so nervous that the only answer I remember saying was, “I don’t want to sit at home all summer being a couch potato.” I must have said something right that day because they asked me to join the program.
My Chosen Family
I spent my first summer working out on the mountain. Through difficult projects, I quickly learned that relying on my teammates actually made me stronger and more successful. I have to thank JaMaal, one of the older interns, for making me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself, bigger than just a job. JaMaal believed in me and didn’t look down on me just because I was small. He became a brother to me — part of my chosen family. He was the first person I ever felt comfortable sharing my feelings with because he showed me it was okay to feel however I felt at that time. I trust him enough to be real with him. And he trusts me too.
That summer I learned that I didn’t have to blend in anymore and being unique is good. Working outside with my team helped me find that part of myself that I had hidden. Through all the struggles I went through, I continued to learn about myself and others. Not only did this improve my relationship with my sister, it made things better between me and my entire family.
Proud to Be Me
To this day I continue to learn. I still have a difficult time expressing my emotions and sometimes I go back to my old way of thinking. I was hanging out with my little brother recently, and he got hurt and began to cry. I found myself saying, “It’s not okay for boys to cry.” At that moment, I realized that by keeping all my feelings inside I was hurting my brother and myself and that if my little brother could learn to express his anger, hurt, frustration, AND joy, he would be a better man. After that, I could see that I may have come a long way, but I still have some work to do. Before, I may have been discouraged by this, but now I just see all of the progress I have made and know that I will continue to improve.
Like I said, when I started the program I never liked being outside much. Now, you’ll find me climbing all over the boulder field. The Conservancy really gave me a love for climbing which has taught me a lot. Climbing helped me learn that you have to observe where you want to go and take one step at a time to get there. It has also taught me perseverance because eventually, you will fall but you have to keep trying anyway. I also love climbing because it challenges me, I can spend time outside, and get to experience and enjoy the work I have done building boulder pads. Because of LMC I have met climbers that I look up to and even had the opportunity to compete in climbing competitions. When I can’t climb outside, I like to climb at Synergy Climbing Gym.
Working and climbing on the Mountain gave me the experience and bravery to become who I am today. I’m not a quitter. I am a helper because I know what it feels like to need help. I’m resilient, kind, and strong.
I am proud to be me.