Austin youth compete in public speaking contest

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Zyleik Gladney wasn’t born in a traditional hospital surrounded by doctors and loved ones.

He took his first breaths in a prison infirmary because his mom was incarcerated at the time.

That’s how the 16-year-old student at George Westinghouse College Prep started the speech he gave Thursday night at BUILD’s fifth annual public speaking contest.

Zyleik went on to talk about how he made the decision to stay off the streets and create a better future for himself – a future that many of his family members missed out on because of bad decisions, he said.

“It taught me to be brave, and be bold,” Zyleik said of the public speaking classes he took at BUILD, a community organization that works with youth at-risk for drugs and gang violence.

Now Zyleik, the youngest of four boys – two of whom are incarcerated – plans to join the Navy after high school and become a doctor.

The public speaking contest is used to help kids like Zyleik overcome fears and prepare them for the working world, said Aramis Pates, group aide at BUILD, coordinator of the annual contest and the 2013 second-place winner.

“The process was pretty much just getting them to open up in the first place,” Pates said.

Because the participants are often closed-off about family issues, Pates said, they begin the program by having students putting their feelings to paper. This exercise opens them up to talking more about their lives, he said.

The public speaking class this year started with nearly 30 participants, Pates said, but dwindled to those who demonstrated their commitment through a five-month process, meeting every Saturday except for holidays, he said.

Thursday, seven contestants participated in the this year’s contest, and the topic was “what’s your BUILD story,” Pates said.

This allowed the youth to talk about what led them to join BUILD, which stands for Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development.

Through the telling of these personal stories, the youth prepare for networking, job interviews and interactions in the business world, Pates said.

“Every last one of their dreams and aspirations in life require them to speak well in public,” he said. “And I hope that they take everything that we’ve taught them and continue to use that in the future.”

BUILD board member Pat Spratt shares the same hopes.

“I hope that they take away the ability to express themselves orally in a way that furthers their goals,” Spratt said.

Cleshay Williams, a 15-year-old sophomore at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School, said being apart of BUILD the past year has taught her many things, but mainly she learned to try things she’s never attempted before.

“BUILD pushes us to try new things,” Cleshay said.

Gaining the courage to talk about her father who is serving time in prison wasn’t easy, but she found comfort in knowing her story isn’t unlike others’.

“The best part was working with kids from different races and hearing what they’ve been through and understanding that they’ve been through so much more than me,” she said.

Here are the seven students who participated:

  • Viviana Carrasco, 16 (1st place winner)
  • Allesia Cherry, 14
  • Zyleik Gladney, 16 (2nd place winner)
  • Jeremiah Greenwood, 17 (3rd place winner)
  • Estrella Rivera, 15
  • Selena Rodriguez, 13
  • Cleshay Williams, 15

The prizes included a $250, $500 and $1,000 college scholarship.

The judges made sure no participant went home empty handed. They gave acting classes to Cleshay, named an honorary 4th place winner, while the remaining participants received a $50 gift cards.


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