Good evening, everyone. My name is Elin Dahal and I am a West End House alumnus. I am honored to be up on this stage speaking to you tonight. I am originally from Nepal and I came to the U.S. with my mom when I was four years old. My Dad had already been in this country for about a year. From the moment they arrived, both of my parents worked many jobs in order to support us. They struggled to maintain their tenuous grasp on the “better life” they were looking for when we flew across the world. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Allston. My parents enrolled me in the Boston Public School system and I went to the Jackson Mann Elementary school. We were undocumented.
My Mom would walk me to school every morning before going to her first job and then pick me up in the afternoon to walk me home, before she went to her second job. My Dad was at work all day. I spent hours in front of the television in the apartment alone. But my parents didn’t want me to be raised by TV, so they started looking for an after-school program, somewhere I could be around other kids my age. They took me from place to place, a few weeks here a couple months there. So many of the programs were very expensive, and my parents couldn’t afford to keep me in for long. Others worked out better and I would stay for a year or so, but then I would outgrow the program and have to go. This went on until I entered the third grade.
Through a close family friend, my parents found out about the West End House which only cost $15 for the whole year. My parents were hopeful that I could stay at the West End House for a long time and they were relieved to find a place they could afford. None of us knew then, but the Club would become my home for the next eight years.
My years at the West End House were filled with learning, growth, and play. I spent hours in the education center – working on my geometry and reading with staff and volunteers. I remember getting into fights with my friends playing foursquare but learning how to work it out with some guidance from the staff. I remember laughing and running in the gym. As I got older I started hanging out in the Teen Center and learned guitar in the Music Room. Although the programs were great, and I learned a lot from them, it was the staff who ran the programs that I remember and value the most. It has always been these relationships, this community, that has kept me coming back to the Club.
It is not an exaggeration to say I would not be where I am today if not for the opportunities given to me by the West End House community. I volunteered with other teens in the Club’s Keystone program and I learned about using the arts to engage with social justice in the Culture for Change program. I was a Brian J. Honan Fellow, a program that taught me about public policy and included an internship at City Hall. I spent my summers in the Teen Leadership program practicing public speaking and working on my resume and interview skills. I’ve had a resume since I was fourteen! And a good one too.
None of us knew then, but the Club would become my home for the next eight years.
Talk about a head start; staff at the Club had me looking at colleges when I was a freshman in high school. It was Mark who nominated me for the Peter Gammon’s Scholarship and I couldn’t believe it when I won — it was a four year scholarship that closed my financial gap. I know my parents and I would have had a hard time financing college without it. When I was in high school, I can remember sitting with Club alumni Bie and Dawnn, joking about going to UMass Amherst. Dawnn was so excited that I was thinking about her alma mater. Here I am 8 years later and I am graduating from UMass Amherst next week. I like to think that Dawnn is looking down on me and would be proud.
What the Club gave me was a blueprint for success. It gave me the skills, opportunities, and networks to be able to navigate a complicated and messy society. There are some obvious things I’ve gotten out of my many years here — scholarships, a nice resume, the ability to speak in front of all of you tonight. But more than that, the Club gave me a community. A community that laughs together, celebrates together, and mourns together. It gave me long-lasting relationships and a place to grow up, a place to feel like I belonged. Because a blueprint can build a house, but what makes it a home are the lives that fill it. So I am excited about the renovation, and the new construction. But what I’m more excited about is the community that will fill the new space. The feet that will run up and down those new steps. The laughter that will echo in the new auditorium. A new space that so many kids can call… and will continue to call… home.