West Side teens share life stories during inspiring night

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Teens Chaseon Erving and Arianna Johnson won 1st and 2nd place in BUILD Chicago's annual speech contest.

Chaseon Erving is not the same as he was a year ago. After a shooting turned his 15th birthday party into a “nightmare,” he struggled with fear and anxiety, afraid to go back out into the world.

“I felt like a wolf caught up in the captivity of my own mind,” Chaseon told a hushed room in a speech he had spent weeks perfecting.

Three shots, he said, hitting the podium three times, turned the now 16-year-old’s life upside down. For months, he couldn’t leave his house. He leaned on his mentor at the nonprofit group BUILD Chicago, who saw “the cage that no one else could see” and helped him “become the strong wolf that I was.”

The Prosser Career Academy sophomore received a standing ovation when it was announced that his speech had been awarded 1st place by a panel of judges. (Note: AustinTalks Editor Suzanne McBride served as a judge.)

“I made it out on my own two feet,” Chaseon said. This experience “showed me that when life knocks you down, you have to get back up.”

And just when you think life is going well, something can happen to throw you off kilter again, he said. Like the text he received earlier this year from a suicidal friend.

That text came from Austin College and Career Academy senior Arianna Johnson, who also placed 1st in BUILD’s annual youth speech contest, held April 11.

“I was ready to leave the world,” Arianna, 17, said. “I thank God the pills didn’t work.”

She said the stress of school and work, coupled with her perfectionism, brought her to the brink of suicide. Her mother, who was in the audience, said the family doesn’t want to hide what happened because Arianna’s story could help other teens struggling with the stress of life.

During her speech, Arianna noted she comes from a line of hard-working women with college degrees and jobs – and she intends to follow in their footsteps.

At first she wanted to be a teacher – but then she realized she didn’t like kids. She considered being a lawyer, too. Then she thought she’d like to be a podiatrist until her sister put her feet on her and the teen realized she doesn’t like feet. She even considered being a trauma nurse – until her mom showed her bloody pictures, causing her to scream.

Now, Arianna is leaning toward studying forensics science, with the goal of earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

She’s learned how not to quit “no matter how hard it gets,” Arianna said.

Three other teens also were honored for their speeches with 2nd awards: Wendell Phillips High School sophomores LaQuisha Johnson, Mo’nai McClellan and Taliah Thompson.

All five teens received a $50 gift certificate for participating in the weeks of practice at BUILD. The 1st winners will each receive a $1,000 scholarship to the college or trade school of their choice, while the three 2nd winners will get $500 scholarships.

The other judges for the 14th annual competition included: Judge William J. Bauer, Nina Hajian, Dr. Zeita Merchant, Honorable Jesse G. Reyes, Damone Richardson and Lah Tere.

Arianna Johnson, Chaseon Erving, Taliah Thompson, Mo’nai McClellan and LaQuisha Johnson won college scholarships in BUILD Chicago’s annual youth speech contest.

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