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Youth In Focus changes teens, one photo at a time

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)


Like a lot of high school boys, Kentridge High School junior, Antoine Fougere, wanted to be an NBA player, a dream career not attained by many. But then Antoine was selected to participate in Youth In Focus, a program for at-risk or struggling youth that uses the art of photography to breed confidence, self-esteem and success. It was the first time he paid attention to taking photos.

“This is my passion, I love photography. I want to make it my career.”

I met Antoine at Thursday night’s end-of-quarter photography showcase, where he showed off photos of his mom and sister.

“They did so much for me. My mom’s a single mother. I picked this background, of the Seattle Ferris wheel, because life continually goes on and it keeps spinning. This meant a lot to me and I wanted to take pictures of them.”

Trina Gadsden is executive director of Youth in Focus. She says school counselors, social workers and teachers select students they think would benefit from the program, and then kids go through an interview process.

“We get youth at a certain crucial time,” Trina said. “Most youth drop out of high school between the transition of eighth or ninth grade. So we target this kind of sweet spot of when they’d be most likely. The statistic is: when youth are engaged in after-school programs they’re more likely to stay in school and also care about school.”

The program is for at-risk kids, but that term can take on many angles.

“At-risk comes in all shapes and sizes and it’s something that I’m really passionate about that it doesn’t look a certain way,” said Trina. “I like to say, and it’s factual, that one of our youth is homeless and lives under the freeway [and they attend Youth In Focus] along with a homecoming queen, straight A’s, who is abused at home.”

Stella Sangster is a junior at Seattle Academy.

“All of my life I have always been self-conscious and I’ve always tried to do things to love myself more and become more confident and they haven’t really ever worked.”

But Youth In Focus has helped her to come out of her shell.

“It was just a really safe environment and everyone was really nice to me,” Stella said. “So I was just able to be myself without having to think about what other people thought about me, where at school I had to do that. They helped me to burst out of my little bubble and love myself more. Love me the way they love me.”

Thirteen year old Enya Garcia hopes that her photos might help other girls learn to love their bodies.

“My theme was ‘The Human Body Is Amazing.’ People don’t really like their bodies a lot, especially in this generation. People are super self-conscious or they think the human body is disgusting or weird and stuff. But I think differently. I think it’s amazing and I think everyone should learn to love their body.”

The students are able to express themselves through photos instead of words.

“I have one self-portrait up and it shows that I’ve become a little bit more confident and a little bit more comfortable in front of the camera,” said Stella, at the showcase. “Youth In Focus has helped me with that.”

“I’m pretty proud of what I could do,” said 15-year-old Renton High School student, Hannah Hess. “I didn’t think I would be this good when I started.”

Youth In Focus has focused on changing the way kids look at the world for the past 20 years.

“The goal is not just to kick out awesome photographers, in fact it’s not the goal,” Trina said. “It’s to kick out these awesome individuals who are empowered to then be able to talk about whatever and help their peers.”

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