HUNTINGTON – If you want to know anything about Jessica Lucas, program coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club of Huntington, just ask the kids she serves.
“She taught me to never be afraid of who I am,” said Alannah Spearman, 13.
“She puts others before herself,” said Katelin Holley, 13. “She always knows what to say.”
“She’s like our best friend,” said Lyndon Jackson, 9.
“She cares for the kids like we are her own,” said Essence Newman, 13.
Born and raised in Chesapeake, Lucas, 39, began volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club four-and-a-half years ago after moving back to the Tri-State from Los Angeles, where she worked in the public relations and marketing department of the University of Southern California, due to health reasons.
Lucas taught art, something she said she thrives upon and loved to share with the kids.
Then, when it was Huntington’s turn to host the Youth of the Year ceremony, Lucas was promoted to program coordinator.
As program coordinator, Lucas ensures every child who walks through the doors of the Boys & Girls Club is awash with enriching experiences, especially in the summer when the kids have a different program or trip every day.
“Every child in our community deserves the very best,” Lucas said. “They, to me, are gifts – blessings and gifts. When you have a precious gift, you have this opportunity to choose how you are going to treat it. That’s not just the parents and the guardians. When I say ‘us’ from here on out, I don’t even mean just the Boys & Girls Club. As a community, we have a choice. We, within these walls, will have future neurosurgeons, future nurses, future doctors, perhaps a future president of the United States. You’ve heard me say it before, but I passionately and truly believe that. These are the people that will be serving us. This is our future. We are obligated as a community and truly blessed with the opportunity to help them fulfill their greatest potential and to be the best versions of themselves.”
As Lucas plans her programs, she makes sure four components are included: fun and excitement, empowerment, enrichment and compassion.
“I want those neurotransmitters and the brain to be awash in those happy chemicals,” she said.
Lucas said she wants to make sure her kids know they are seen, heard and valued. She also wants to make sure they see the community working together.
Lucas knows firsthand the power this community has. As a child, she was diagnosed with a growth-hormone deficiency. In a story about Lucas and her family’s struggles to pay for her medication in The Herald-Dispatch, Lucas looks to be about 3 or 4, but she was actually 8. She’s just over 3 feet tall.
“I’ve experienced things where times were rough and we can’t afford the medicine I need; here are my parents worrying about how they will get the medicine,” Lucas said.
Lucas said because of the people who donated to help her and because of those who prayed for her, she will always give back to the community.
“Support has been so important and continues to be so important,” Lucas said. “We can easily look at each other and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s a lost cause,’ and believe me, people have said that about me … But I won’t give up on these kids or any community I’m a part of, because I know how important it is to lean on each other.”
When planning her programs, Lucas leans on her community partners to provide the most enriching experiences she can, and she is always looking for new partnerships.
“(Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)? Huge partner,” Lucas said. “The gardening initiative, we can’t do that without OVEC. We could put seeds in a cup, and that’s how it started, my art room, seeds in Pringles cups. And that’s not to toot my own horn. That’s to say we can certainly do that, and it shows the kids self-sufficiency and self-resiliency and self-sustainability. But the extra added element that’s so amazing and that’s the lesson is we can do so much better and so much more if we work together.”
Lucas’ emphasis on the community also stems from her yoga practice, as “yoga” means “unity.”
“Yoga saved my life,” she said.
For 20 years, Lucas has been in and out of treatment facilities and hospitals due to anorexia, an eating disorder, coupled with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was her eating disorder that sent her back home from L.A.
“Working with the young people, I have experienced the most personal growth,” Lucas said. “It was a reflection of looking at these young people and knowing what they deserve, but realizing I, too, deserve that. It’s that relationship of if I want to do the best for them, I have to do the best for me.”
Yoga was Lucas’ way to save her own life after being told by doctors she was a lost cause and the disorder had total control over her. Through yoga, she built back strength in her bones, but most importantly learned to quiet her mind and find her own internal worth.
“It’s living your yoga,” Lucas said. “It’s about more than the postures. Every meal that I have, I have to utilize the skills I learned in yoga. Every speaking engagement. Every time I feel overwhelmed and that I’m not doing enough for these kids, I have to utilize those skills. That keeps me in a healthier spot.”
Yoga also taught her when to ask for help.
“That is something we can teach our kids,” she said. “You don’t have to do any of this alone. On top of that, the regulation of depression, anxiety and trauma. I know it can help. Help – there’s no cure. No magic pill. But yoga helps you get to a place to deal with depression, trauma, stress, and move you to a place of connection rather than a place of fear.”
Lucas is a certified yoga instructor and shares her practice whenever she can. But whether it’s yoga, dance, art or robotics, she just wants to show her kids all of the choices they have in life.
“I want them to have, ‘This is what I do with this extra energy,’” Lucas said. “This is what I turn to when I’m upset. This is what I engage in. That’s why collaboration is so important, too. When it gets rough, do they think they have to deal with it on their own and turn to a substance or a maladaptive coping mechanism? As humans, we have that choice. I want these little humans to know you have all of this as options.”
Lucas said she will always be a dreamer, even if she is criticized for being too sweet or thinking too big. She’ll also always do whatever she can to help her kids achieve their dreams.
“She takes me to dance,” said Daevion Wilson, 10, who attends Jeslyn Performing Arts Center through a partnership with the club. “My mom and I got in a car accident, and we had to put the car in the shop, so Miss Jessica would take me to dance classes.”
Lucas and another staff member also helped Wilson write his winning Herald-Dispatch essay.
Katelin Holley, 13, said she has known Lucas for less than a year, but she’s her role model.
“She’s inspirational,” Holley said. “When I first started going, she was always there for me and she helped me through stuff.”
Lyndon Jackson, 9, said even if he is sad or grounded, Lucas makes him happy.
“When you come, she’s always like, ‘I missed you! I missed you!’” Jackson said.
As the interview with the kids ended, Lucas could be heard joyously shouting a child’s name outside.
“That’s her!” they all said, with giggles, smiles and light in their eyes.
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