'They gave me back my hope'

Chastyn Webster graduated from Clemson in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Along the way, she volunteered with Alternative Spring Break, was a research team member with Aspire to Be Well and Tigers Together to Stop Suicide, and a member of Sigma Kappa. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work.

Long before her arrival as a freshman, Webster had experienced a different side of Clemson — one that has served more than 5,000 marginalized youth ranging from students with autism to teenage mothers in foster care to low-level juvenile offenders. She had been part of a program at Clemson’s Youth Learning Institute. YLI creates and delivers programs for youth and families throughout the state.

“Every kid is at risk, including mine, and every kid deserves a chance,” said Cody Greene, director of at-risk programs at YLI. Greene has spent the past 18 years at YLI, 14 of them as director of the Youth Development Center at Camp Long in Aiken, where Webster was placed by court order at the age of 15. Through team building, experiential learning, life and leadership skills development, and a heavy dose of fun, students are able to envision and achieve different paths for their lives.

“The kids who come through our programs are rich, poor, black, white, Hispanic, Asian — you name it,” Greene said. “They need positive role models and a safe, nurturing environment, the same as all of us.”

Carlos Gore is the current director at the YDC, where he’s worked for almost 11 years. “Our students are no different than you and I,” he said. “They made poor choices due to circumstances that we take for granted.”

Gore remembers Webster’s early days at Camp Long: “She felt like everyone was against her. It took her awhile to know the things we were saying would help her.”

Webster was at Camp Long for the whole summer, returning home a week before school started. “Being there was good for me,” she said, “because I was separated long enough from the people I claimed were my friends.”

She struggled for the next year, she said. “It took awhile not to want to return to all those friends I had before, but I decided I wanted more for myself.” Because of her experience at YDC, she set her sights on attending Clemson and studying psychology, with the encouragement of her father.

Webster has now returned to Camp Long, this time on staff as a behavior modification specialist for the YDC, working with teenage girls. “I can’t relate to everything because I’ve had privileges that some of them will never have,” Webster said, “but I know what it’s like to feel hopeless. When I was their age, I thought everyone in the world was against me.”

Hope, she said, is the key. “It could have been a terrible time in my life, but it wasn’t. It was tough some days for sure, but we had lots of fun times. They allowed me to feel like a kid again — which I was — instead of a misfit of society. They gave me back my hope.”

Learn more about the Youth Learning Institute.

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