(Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a series of funded content pieces commissioned by a donor who supports both NonDoc and the Boys & Girls Club of Oklahoma County.)

When Jessica Caldwell first went to the Boys & Girls Club of Oklahoma County, she felt out of place.

“I didn’t like it at first,” Caldwell recalled. “It took a little bit.”

As a 14-year-old teenager in foster care, Caldwell had more years and more experiences on her than many of her peers at the club. She felt too old. She felt like she didn’t fit in. She felt a tremendous sense of embarrassment after unwittingly telling these feelings to the club’s CEO without knowing who she was.

“She was in the front lobby distributing books to club members as they left before Christmas break, so I started a conversation with her,” CEO Jane Sutter said. “She said that she wished there were more activities for teen girls at the club. I took her comment seriously and began looking for more programs and opportunities for her friends and her.”

To say Sutter succeeded in finding more opportunities for Caldwell would be an understatement.

Caldwell, now a junior at OU studying human relations and African-American studies, said she owes her collegiate career to Sutter and the Boys & Girls Club.

“I found a lot of mentors there, and they helped me apply for college,” she said. “I hadn’t even thought about it.”

As an OU student, Caldwell’s course load is heavy — even knocking out credits by taking weekend classes — and she has been working several jobs, including an AmeriCorps position with the Boys & Girls Club of Norman and the Center for Children and Families.

Her current life plan includes working for the Boys & Girls Club of America offices in Atlanta.

Giving back to Boys & Girls Club

In 2013, Caldwell was chosen as the Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year for the Memorial Park club and then the entire state. Now 19, she said she owes where she has gotten to Sutter and the BGC of Oklahoma County, so she gives back to the organization that offered her mentorship and support.

“Having a place to go and always knowing there was going to be dinner after school to eat, it was important that there were always going to be people there,” she said. “I liked the art room. I was always in there making projects. When we couldn’t buy supplies, there was always stuff in there we could use for school. I wish I would have known about it when I was younger.”

Now that she’s older, Caldwell, enjoys working with the children who remind her of herself and her brothers.

“My mom couldn’t help us with our homework, and we never had to do our homework. But here, when they come in, ‘Power Hour’ is a time when the kids have to do it, and they have people to help them,” Caldwell said of the kids she now assists. “It’s really fun hearing from them, especially the kids who don’t talk a lot in the group. There’s a lot of kids who don’t want to leave at the end of the day. They like it here. It’s bittersweet.”

‘An exceptional person’

Lisa Henry, archivist and collections curator for OU’s Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, describes Caldwell as a positive and inspiring young woman.

“She’s an exceptional person, and you can tell it by her presence,” said Henry, who managed Caldwell during temporary work she performed for the commercial archive. “She has a presence. You know those people when you’re with them. You can tell she’s just a force of nature.”

Sutter agrees.

“Jessica has so many wonderful qualities, but the two that are most astounding to me are her resiliency and drive,” Sutter said. “The fact that she has risen above very difficult childhood experiences to break the cycle of abuse and multigenerational poverty is an inspiration to all of the youth we serve, many of whom come from similarly challenging backgrounds. She has an inner drive not only to create a better life for herself, but also for others.”

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Case in point, Caldwell recently “braved the shave” to support St. Baldrick’s Foundation by donating her hair to the organization that helps children who have cancer. The move impressed Henry.

“I think that’s a pretty bold and fearless statement, especially for someone her age and a woman to shave her hair off,” Henry said. “That’s a large part of a person’s identity — her hair — and especially when it was as stunning as hers was.”

Henry said she considers Caldwell a positive role model for the children she now mentors herself with the Boys & Girls Club.

“I think she would probably help them see that they can do anything that they want to because she’s done it,” Henry said. “She’s maybe not the worst background you could have, but she’s certainly had to work hard to get where she’s gotten to today.”

Henry said the BGC kids are lucky to have staff like Caldwell in their lives.

“She can probably instill a little of that single-mindedness in the kids. ‘Well, if Jessica can do it, I can do it,’” she said. “Kids are very receptive, and I think they can probably feel the goodwill that Jessica has. Quite frankly, I’m approaching retirement age, and I find her inspirational.”