MINNEAPOLIS (Dec. 22, 2014) – Youth Frontiers, the leading character education organization in the Upper Midwest, has presented its 2014 Character Award to Peter Yang, a senior at Johnson High School in St. Paul.
Yang, who was commended for his exceptional character in spite of adversity, was honored at Youth Frontiers’ annual Ethical Leadership Luncheon, attended by hundreds of the area’s top corporate, nonprofit and civic leaders. To further recognize his accomplishments, Luther Automotive presented Yang with a $3,000 scholarship.
Yang has had to overcome the challenges of coming from a low-income home and from parents without any formal education. As a child of Hmong refugees, Yang has had to struggle for every chance to learn and grow in his desire to achieve.
Yang’s mother, Ying Vang, and father, Youa Xiong Yang, came to St. Paul from Laos to be with relatives who had immigrated before them. Born in 1996 in St. Paul, Yang struggled to communicate. An aunt began to teach him English at daycare; then his mother brought him along to a local community center to learn English. But for years, Yang deferred to using hand gestures to help him communicate.
Yang wrestled with the alphabet, numbers and telling time – simple steps that prevented him from keeping up with his peers. He was held back in 3rd grade, and moved to multiple schools, mostly due to his battles with language. Yang said, “I moved to a different school because of embarrassment. But this embarrassment is what encouraged me to work harder.” Many kids might have given up, but Yang continued to push.
He loved his friends and teachers, and even as he struggled, he loved education. And while English challenged him, Yang found a skill that came naturally. Math. When Yang arrived at Community of Peace Academy in 4th grade, he was a new student. By the 5th grade, he was doing 7th grade math. His confidence soared, which motivated him to keep going.
At the Community of Peace Academy, he also was honored three years in a row with the Peace Builder Award, which recognizes a student for their respect and kindness. This award fed his desire to help others. ”If people see the good side of you, keep doing the good,” his parents told him.
Middle school is a difficult time for most kids, and it certainly was for Yang. His feelings of confusion and difficulties at school were hard enough, but even harder to discuss with his immigrant parents. Toward the end of 8th grade, Yang attended the YMCA Youth Leadership Camps – King Leadership Camp – which helps minority students learn about each others’ ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well as their own struggles. Yang realized how lucky he was, despite his challenges.
Yang came to Johnson High School in the 9th grade. But as he entered high school, Yang knew he needed to step up and work even harder. In the 10th grade, he reached higher and took two Honors classes, including English. While he only finished with a B grade, it was a huge accomplishment. As a junior, Yang worked even harder and became a full-time Honors student, taking five Honors courses in history, calculus, literature, French and chemistry.
He was recruited to join Link Crew, a peer mentoring program, and became a Youth Frontiers leader for the organization’s high school Respect Retreats and with several local elementary schools on Kindness Retreats. Yang joined the Junior Class Band and also raised money for and traveled to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity.
Today, as a senior, Yang is busier than ever. He works with the St. Paul Public Schools on various youth outreach programs that involve group discussions, which he facilitates. He also volunteers in the school’s ASD program, connecting with autism students on their level and being responsive to their needs. In addition, he is active in St. Paul-based Shades of Yellow (SOY), the first and only Hmong LGBTQ nonprofit organization in the world that provides support, education, advocacy and leadership development, and aims to ignite positive cultural and social change.
And, Yang was Student of the Month, one of the highest honors this young student could imagine.
Today, Yang is taking the requirement classes for college and hoping to earn a scholarship to study biology or chemistry. College is simply what he and his family have long dreamed.
But perhaps more importantly, Yang’s friends, fellow students and teachers know him as an exceedingly optimistic young man, always ready and willing to help. He arrives early and stays late. And always with a smile on his face – which makes others smile back.
“Peter was the best part of my day,” said Elizabeth Ormsby, an 11th grade teacher at Johnson. “His smile was contagious and his energy was palpable. As a teacher, I know how exceptionally hard he has had to work to overcome his communication and cultural barriers. But more importantly, Peter stands tall as he incorporates the values of kindness, courage, respect and integrity into his life and into the lives of others. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the Youth Frontiers’ Character Award.”
Youth Frontiers Character Award honors those who fulfill the organization’s mission of changing the way students treat each other in every hallway, lunch line and classroom of every school in America.
“We meet students every day on retreat who live out the values of kindness, moral courage and respect,” says Joe Cavanaugh, founder and CEO of Youth Frontier. “We believe that we need to invest in these students today so that they can make our world better tomorrow. Peter Yang is an outstanding example of a student who is already working to make his community and our world a better place by living a life of character.”
Yang lives each day with the kindness he projects. He lives by the Buddha’s quote: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle…and happiness never decreases by being shared.” Yang also believes, “A life with a smile on your face, happiness in your heart and goals on your mind make you indestructible. “
Founded in 1987 and based in the Twin Cities, Youth Frontiers, Inc. (www.youthfrontiers.org) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to building the character of young people. To help build a more respectful school culture, Youth Frontiers’ creative initiatives focus on the importance of being respected and valued. The Twin Cities-based organization delivers programs that build positive school communities and strengthen student character in schools across the country. For more than 27 years, the organization aims to strengthen core values, confront negative behaviors and enable students to recognize the consequences of their actions. Youth Frontiers is funded through a partnership between schools and private foundations, corporations and individuals.