As a first-grader, Ajamu Dillahunt-Holloway found a second home at the Washington Elementary Boys & Girls Club.
He loved arriving every afternoon to play basketball and complete his homework at a place where everyone treated him like family.
More than a decade later, Dillahunt-Hollway, a 17-year-old senior at Southeast Raleigh High School, still calls the club home. He runs soccer drills and tutors younger students, hoping to pass along the same support that was given to him.
Dillahunt-Holloway said the lessons he learned at the club are part of the foundation for his life as a student, athlete and advocate for better schools and civil rights.
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“It’s been a part of my life for a really long time, and it has provided me with a lot of opportunities,” he said. “It inspired me to dream and to follow my dreams.”
Dillahunt-Holloway is the 2015 Youth of the Year for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wake County. This spring, he will compete for the statewide title, which recognizes a member’s contributions to family, school, community and club, as well as the ability to overcome obstacles.
Eric DeShield, the Washington Elementary club director, said Dillahunt-Holloway is known for the respect he shows to everyone and his genuine interest in others.
“He really appreciates other opinions. He wants everyone to be equal and have a voice,” DeShield said.
Dillahunt-Holloway said the club has helped him in ways big and small, along with a loving family deeply involved in community affairs.
After he got a concussion playing soccer during his sophomore year, he was plagued by horrible headaches and missed many days of school. Staff members at the club cheered him along through his recovery, helping him to regain his stride, he said.
Later, as he grew into his role as an advocate, Dillahunt-Holloway’s experiences at the Boys & Girls Club helped him feel confident about expressing his beliefs, he said.
He is active in groups such as youth-led N.C. HEAT, which has pushed for changes in school discipline policies that the group says create a school-to-prison pipeline.
He wants all students to have equal access to quality education; to end policies that push students out of school, such as harsh suspension rules; and to seek solutions to injustice through grassroots, community-led efforts.
“I feel like I have something to stand for. My eyes are opened up,” he said. “The Boys & Girls Club helped me with that. They said follow your dreams, and one of my dreams is to have equality in schools.”
Last year, when Dillahunt-Holloway visited Washington, D.C., to talk to officials from the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-American Children, he thought back on his time at the club. He knew having that resource made a difference for him. He wants all young people to have the same chance.
“If you support students, you will see better outcomes,” he said.
Dillahunt-Holloway has chaneled his interests into an internship at Legal Aid of North Carolina, a position he pitched to the organization.
He assists with outreach efforts statewide and sits on a committee that is trying to find ways for schools to refer fewer students to juvenile court.
Julia Nieves, community outreach director at Legal Aid’s Advocates for Children’s Services, said Dillahunt-Holloway has both an endearing, down-to-earth nature and a fierce commitment to the issues he cares about.
“To have that combination at a young age is a gift and a talent and something I’m not sure you can teach,” she said.
Dillahunt-Holloway plans to attend N.C. Central University, where he would like to study political science and African-American studies.