She started life as an orphan in southern China, and now Gabriella Alvarez is student governor of the YMCA Youth and Government program and a soon-to-be high school senior. She overcame a speech impediment to step in front of her peers and become a leader at the program. Now she can provide a voice to those who do not have one.
The YMCA Youth Legislature offers youths an opportunity to develop leadership skills, learn about careers in public service, write and critique laws, and gather in Olympia each May with teens from around the state.
According to Suzanne Alvarez, her mom, she was adopted at 11 months old from a Chinese orphanage that had 300 babies and 12 nannies. Suzanne had applied to adopt from the country.
“At that time, China matches you with a baby,” Alvarez said. “And so you get a call from the agency and they said, ‘Here’s your child, come and get her,’ and two weeks later we got on a plane and flew to China and we were handed Gabby.”
Gabriella said she got involved with the YMCA program after her mom learned about it, but resisted due to her dislike of public speaking. She said she joined the program after her parents shoved her through the doors and told her she was doing it.
Even though the first meeting was scary to her, Gabriella said she liked the adviser and decided to stay.
Growing up, Gabriella said she faced challenges with a speech impediment that made her want to “stand in a corner and not speak up” for fear of being ridiculed by kids and adults.
During her freshman year of high school at a Y&G debate, Gabriella said a judge told her, in front of others, that it was difficult to understand her due to her impediment and that she needed to get it fixed. She went home that day embarrassed and ready to quit the program.
However, after receiving encouragement from her parents to continue the program and spending a lot of time in speech therapy, she said she has been able to say words that once were difficult.
“I’ve been doing speech therapy for a really long time, and I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’m able to say words that have been really difficult,” Gabriella said. “And while it’s still incredibly hard for me to get up and speak, I’m able to do that because of the program Youth and Government, because of the advisers that were so supportive and encouraging and very welcoming.”
She added that she had received support from peers who understood her situation.
Alvarez said Gabriella would take her notes and speeches to her speech therapist, who would help her with those, as well as receive help from her family. If they found a word or phrase she was struggling with, they would help Gabriella reword it to make it easier.
Through her work in the program and dedication to improving her impediment, Gabriella ran for student governor in May and won.
“To be elected student governor, 500 kids voted, and she had to run a campaign and stand up there and give a speech in front of everyone and I think they saw her heart,” Alvarez said. “And when they announced her name, everyone just jumped out of their seats. There was clapping and applauding and cheering.”
She added the announcement was overwhelming for her and her husband because they knew how hard Gabriella had worked on overcoming her impediment to speak in front of people.
As student governor, Gabriella said she will focus the program on giving a voice to those who do not have one.
“We have the great debaters and the great speakers, but I want to give a voice and spotlight to those who have overcome challenges just to be there,” Gabriella said, “whether that is financial, family, health, a speech impediment.”
She will be student governor for the next year.
“I highly encourage those who are struggling with a speech impediment, who are shy and whose voice isn’t out there, who are afraid that their voice doesn’t matter, that they join Youth and Government because their voice does matter,” Gabriella said. “Speak out. It’s really difficult, but do so because their voice and their opinions matter and they can make a difference.”
Gabriella is in Washington, D.C., through Sunday for the governors conference, where she is learning how to be a governor.
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