Vang Le — Western Washington University freshman and winner of the Boys and Girls Club of Whatcom County’s Youth of the Year award and the Regional Youth of the Year award — talks about his life then and now
Vang Le has overcome a lot in his 18 years. But one wouldn't know it by looking at him today, as he sits in a coffeehouse at Western Washington University. With his headphones around his neck, he fits right in, as if going to school was always meant for him. But it wasn't.
Le, born and raised in Bellingham, says that when he was younger, college wasn’t talked about, and he almost didn’t make it through high school.
Le is the first person in his family to go to college. Le says that a realistic goal for him was to graduate from high school and find a job. His mother was a single mother, and his family needed help and support.
“My life was normal to me until I grew up and realized living in a shelter wasn’t normal,” Le says. “Looking for food every day wasn’t normal.”
Le says although the lifestyle made him more independent, it also lead him down a bad path. He stole clothes and food that he needed and his family couldn’t afford.
In 2001, Le first began going to the Boys and Girls Club. When he was 9 years old, he watched the construction for the building take place. Le would steal nails and wood from the construction site to make a fort in the woods next to the future club.
Le said he wandered into the club one day in search of a swimming pool. He soon found out that the pool people referred to was the game of pool. Le was encouraged to stay by the staff—his two older brothers were also at the club, so he felt comfortable staying.
Nick Perigo met Le 10 years ago when they attended the Boys and Girls Club together. Perigo originally knew Le because he was friends with his older brotherm and today he looks at Le as a younger brother of his own. Perigo said when Le was younger he was mischievous and not always the most well behaved.
At that time, the club membership was $30 a year. Le couldn’t afford it, but the club didn’t turn him away. Today, Le feels like he began going to the club for selfish reasons—he loved their basketball court. He now realizes that the club helped him mature.
Le began staying longer at the club, playing games to accrue points and win prizes. He would end up spending all of his points on granola bars that he could take home and eat. But through it all, the club's programs were helping to shape who Le would become without him realizing it.
For Le’s senior project at Bellingham High School, he looked at how the Boys and Girls Club’s after-school programs affect the kids, like him, who attend them.
Le’s mother passed away last December—shortly after he was nominated for The Boys and Girls Club of Whatcom County’s Youth of the Year award. He missed more than a month of school after his mother passed away, and he didn’t think he should accept the nomination.
“I dropped everything and didn’t want to go back to school,” he says.
Le’s mother, who spoke Vietnamese, knew little English. While going through her items a month after she passed away, the family found a picture depicting how to take the bus and get her children to school. The shelter they were living in helped them, Le said. Without the help his mother wouldn’t have known how to take the bus or where it would lead.
Throughout his struggles, the Boys and Girls Club was there for Le and his family. He said they knew how to handle boundaries. By bringing gifts and letters, they helped him get through the hard times.
“I realized, wow, these people are doing so much for us, and what am I doing for them?” Le said.
Le ended up accepting the nomination for Whatcom County’s Youth of the Year award.
“I was skeptical at first; I saw it as for the goody-goody kids, but I was honored,” Le said. “It led to me going to college and led to a full ride to Western.”
Le said the award keeps leading to opportunities for him that would not have been available otherwise. He met the governor. He went on to compete for the Boys and Girls Club’s Regional Youth of the Year award, and he won that, too.
Le says he has learned to thank the people he meets. He had not left Washington state or been on an airplane before being nominated for the award. At each award ceremony he tells his story through a speech. From feedback that Le has heard, he thinks the impact that some of his speeches can have on people is incredible.
Le is modest about his successes and his past, largely keeping to himself.
“When you come from nothing, having something feels really good,” Le said.
Most recently Le traveled to California to give a speech at the Heroes and High Hopes Dinner. At the dinner, basketball star Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson was being inducted into the Boys and Girls Club Alumni Hall of Fame, and actor Mario Lopez was the master of ceremonies. Le was thrilled to meet them both. The speech he gave at the dinner was the best he has ever given, he says.
“I made Magic tear up; he said I inspired him to do better,” Le says. “I was so amazed.”
Le’s unforgettable experience challenged him in his new academic role.
While he was in California, he missed three exams at Western and felt like he was at a breaking point. He said he knew going to college was going to be difficult, but the Boys and Girls Club is always there to help by lending advice and support.
“There’s a lot on my shoulders if I were to drop now,” Le said.
There is a lot on his shoulders—currently Le is taking four courses at Western, he is involved in Western’s Leadership Advantage VIP Program and he works whenever he can for the Boys and Girls Club. Le says it is all about priorities; he has learned how to prioritize his time to make sure he accomplishes what he needs to.
Le tries to work at the Boys and Girls Club a couple times a week. He says the club reminds him where he came from and he wants to make sure the kids know he isn’t leaving.
The Boys and Girls Club is like his family, Le says. “I can have the worst day ever and go to the club and it’s all gone,” he said. “It’s like my own world.”
Le isn’t sure where his path will lead—he is interested in doing more within the Boys and Girls Club organization. He hopes to own his own Boys and Girls Club one day.