By LYNN THOMPSON
BELLEVUE, Wash. (AP) — Moses Shiong didn’t feel supported at home. His parents, Hmong refugees from Laos, didn’t seem to understand their American son. He said they were disappointed that he wasn’t a traditional first son, strong, showing no weakness. His mentors said the parents didn’t seem to notice him withdrawing, locking himself in his room to cry.
By his sophomore year of high school he was skipping first-period English, too exhausted mentally and emotionally, he said, from arguments at home. When his father had a heart attack and could no longer work, Shiong blamed himself and doubled his hours at a Bellevue pizza restaurant to help his family financially.
Shiong, 17, said he had suicidal thoughts, but knew he couldn’t abandon his sister, who was five years younger.
“I wanted her to have a better future. That was a huge motivation for me,” he said.
Last month, Shiong stood beside Gov. Jay Inslee, honored as one of the 13 finalists for the state Boys & Girls Youth of the Year Award, given to the high-school senior who most embodies the club’s values of leadership, service, academic excellence and healthy lifestyles.
Shiong credits the turnaround in his life to the staff at the Bellevue Boys & Girls Club, where he’d attended after-school programs since he was in kindergarten. At the club, he said, he found adults willing to listen and offer support.
One, Masao Yamada, director of the club’s Keystone Leadership Program for high-school students, became a father figure to him, counseling him on how to avoid conflicts at home and offering him opportunities to volunteer, first within the club and then in the community.
Shiong responded by holding every office in the leadership group, from treasurer to president. He volunteered to work with numerous nonprofit organizations, clearing invasive species for EarthCorps, helping shoppers at the local food bank, passing out bottles of water to participants in walk-a-thons and at the Big Climb at the Columbia Tower.
He joined club outings to college campuses in the state and for the first time, he said, his own future began to open up. The club also took the high-school students to meet with local business leaders. They learned about the companies, about the leaders’ own paths to achievement and the role mentors had played in their lives.
Yamada took Shiong and another student to Atlanta for a Boys & Girls Club seminar in poetry and the spoken word. In the end, he went from flunking English to finding an outlet for his feelings through writing.
“He more than just helped me,” Shiong said of his mentor. “No matter what he was doing, he always had time for me. He allowed me to express myself.”
A life transformed
In the process, Yamada said, the discouraged, introverted boy blossomed into a young man willing to extend himself to help others.
At the governor’s mansion in Olympia, Inslee presented Shiong with the Governor’s Award for Community Service, in recognition of the more than 750 volunteer hours he’d logged over the previous three years.
The next night, the 13 finalists presented their own stories to an audience of more than 200 at the Bell Harbor Conference Center in Seattle. Scanning the program, Shiong said his stomach knotted up. The finalists went in alphabetical order by club. Bellevue was first.
He said he took a deep breath, lifted the microphone off the podium and started moving across the stage, finding the rhythm in his words.
The boy who had trouble speaking up for himself performed a spoken-word poem of his journey from the child who was rarely comforted or heard, to finding protection among the “armored knights” of the Boys & Girls Club staff.
“I killed it!” he said.
He didn’t win, but at the end of the ceremony, he was surrounded by people from the audience who congratulated him on his performance.
“I never thought I could speak in front of so many people,” he said.
Following his June graduation, Shiong plans to attend Bellevue College so he can remain close to home and support his sister. After two years, he said, he’d like to transfer to a four-year university and earn a degree in education or counseling.
Having served in every position on his club’s leadership team, he now holds the title of club ambassador.
He testified in Olympia before a legislative committee on a bill to support mentorship programs. In the coming weeks, he will introduce the club’s programs and goals to the Bellevue City Council, the Bellevue Rotary Club and the Bellevue School Board.
“It’s impressive, really impressive,” said Ryan Scott, vice president of Bellevue Boys & Girls Club. “We’re really proud that he can represent us.”
Shiong also started a new program at the club called “Be Heard,” with a goal of reaching out to the quiet kids who might lack the confidence to speak out themselves.
“Maybe they think they’re not important. Maybe they haven’t gotten the opportunity to express themselves. We want to tell them, `You’re important. We need you,’?” Shiong said.