by Eric Garner, BCHD Communications Specialist
Twelve-year-old Kaylin Skinner stood in front of her mom and begged for a haircut. But Kaylin wasn’t pleading for the look her friends were sporting, instead, she demanded to shave her long, dark hair off in support of her balding mother, who was battling breast cancer.
“Kaylin came to me with a very sweet and concerned face looking at my bald head and said she wanted to look just like me,” says Kimberly Surber, Kaylin’s now cancer-free mom. “She didn’t want me to go through it alone.”
Anyone who knows Kaylin, now 18, undoubtedly has their own story of how she has helped them in some way. There’s the high school friend who had their electricity turned off, so Kaylin signed her paycheck over to pay the bill. Or the girl without a ride to school who Kaylin would pick her up each morning. The list goes on.
But for all her generosity and willingness to come to the aid of others, the one person Kaylin couldn’t help for the longest time was herself. Here’s her story.
Moving out West
Kaylin and her mother moved from Florida to Los Angeles when Kaylin was 14. She left behind her core group of friends, her biological father, her middle school softball team – almost everything she loved or was familiar with was in the rearview mirror.
“It was really hard for me,” says Kaylin. “I had to start high school in a strange place, at a new school. It was intimidating.”
Kaylin’s mother enrolled her at Bishop Conaty – Our Lady of Loretto High School in Los Angeles, a prestigious, all-girl preparatory school downtown. Kaylin quickly made new friends and got involved in softball – her passion at the time. But the academics were demanding.
“I have never been good at school. I’m intelligent, but also super lazy if I’m not passionate about something. So I spent a lot of time in and out of the principal’s office and on academic probation. I eventually was kicked off the softball team for my grades, which was super tough. It was my outlet.”
It was also around this time when Kaylin realized she is a gay woman.
“Fortunately, my mom was completely supportive and my sexuality never was a factor in my school life, other than an all-girls school can be a little gossipy.”
After two years of subpar grades, high school antics and countless trips to the principal’s office, Kaylin’s mother decided she needed a change to get back on track. She transferred her daughter to Redondo Union High School (RUHS) for her junior and senior years.
When Kaylin first set foot on the RUHS campus in fall 2012, she recalls being intimidated and depressed. She was at a much larger school, miles away from her friends at Bishop where she was comfortable and wanted to be. So she protested the move by rebelling academically and socially.
“I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. I had my driver’s permit, so people started using me for rides to parties and such. I was skipping class to smoke or drink with my new group of friends – basically, making all of the wrong choices.”
One night after a day driving around town with her friends, Kaylin returned home around 11 p.m. on a school night. She made up an excuse for why she was late, but her mom caught the smell of smoke wafting from the car. She handed Kaylin a bucket of soapy water and said, “Start cleaning the car, you aren’t driving it again. I don’t know what to do with you anymore; I give up.”
Having her mom, who Kaylin describes as her closest friend, throw in the towel was a chilling moment, but it wasn’t enough to motivate her to turn things around. She continued to skip class regularly, sometimes she would sleep through entire classes, and at night, she ran around town with the wrong crowd.
Her grades were tanking but her spirits were lower.
“I was so unhappy with myself. I cried almost every weekend and begged my mom to let me go back to Bishop. I knew I was screwing up, but I felt like I was so far down the wrong road that I couldn’t make a change.”
The winds of change began to blow the beginning of Kaylin’s senior year in 2013. She was called in for a meeting with Senior Class Counselor Tiffany Straight. Ms. Straight told Kaylin that unless she made drastic changes, she would be assigned to Redondo Shores High School, an alternative school on campus. The move would also mean missing prom and, worst of all, RUHS graduation.
But then, a glimmer of hope.
“She told me that if I started immediately and worked my tail off, I could turn my academic situation around. But I only had one-year to undo three years of slacking off. For once, I was actually motivated.”
Kaylin threw her life into academic overdrive senior year. Some mornings she would come to school as early as 5:30 a.m. to make up missed physical education classes. Other days, she would go from teacher to teacher asking for extra credit assignments, anything to bring her grades up. When she wasn’t at school, she was busy working a part-time job in L.A. to earn gas money to make the daily commute to Redondo Beach.
“It was exhausting. I felt like giving up all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I went to Ms. Straight’s office and just cried. But she would always pick me up and convince me to keep going.
“I was on the right track and making progress, but I still felt lost. I had no plan for what I wanted to do with my life after high school, if I even graduated. Something was missing.”
Kaylin calls RUHS Assistant Principal and Blue Zones Project supporter Jens Brandt “the best.”
“He always saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Kaylin says. “He is so upbeat and positive, and you can’t help but feed off of it.”
Mr. Brandt, who was very familiar with Kaylin’s academic and social struggles, suggested she try the new “2014 RU Living with Purpose Series” that RUHS was piloting for students in collaboration with Beach Cities Health District’s Blue Zones Project. The group met weekly with Kathleen Terry, who facilitates Purpose Workshops for the Blue Zones Project, to discuss the importance of living with purpose and how each person has unique talents and interests that support their purpose.
“Everyone loves cheering for the underdog, and I can’t think of a better story of perseverance than Kaylin’s,” says Mr. Brandt. “While she certainly took a circuitous route to finding a sense of purpose, she never lost her authenticity.”
As part of the eight-week series, each participant formulates their “purpose statement,” essentially their motivation for getting out of bed each day. No surprise: Kaylin discovered her purpose is to help others.
“Once I understood that helping and giving back is what I live for, it made everything so clear for me. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was liberating.”
With a renewed sense of purpose and direction, Kaylin finished her senior year strong – with the final exclamation point coming at her 2014 graduation from RUHS. Family members from all corners of the country, including her proud mother, were in attendance to share her big moment.
“Ah, it was the best feeling to get my diploma,” beams Kaylin. “It was a wave of happiness, and I’m still riding that wave into my adult life. If I’m being honest, though, I wouldn’t have graduated without the purpose series. I really wouldn’t have. I think all high school kids should be required to take the course.”
Today, Kaylin is working full-time to save money for college – her boss calls her one of the hardest workers at the company. She aspires to become an emergency response technician (EMT) and hopes to enroll in a program at UCLA this fall. Kaylin says she’s aggressively pursuing all of her dreams and goals using her renewed sense of purpose.
She’s even sporting a new haircut.
“I finally got the chance to cut off my hair and donate it to Locks of Love,” smiles a short-haired, more mature Kaylin. “I wasn’t doing much with it, so why not help someone else feel beautiful and happy? It’s my purpose.”
For more information about upcoming Power of Purpose workshops offered in the Beach Cities, visit bchd.org/purpose or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call Tiana Rideout at (310) 374-3426, ext. 139, or email@example.com.