Friday, February 22, 2008

She Found Chess a Calming Force

17-year-old girl to be honored by youth club Teenager overcomes adversity to become exemplary student By Banks Albach, MEDIANEWS STAFF Article Created: 02/22/2008 02:39:33 AM PST MENLO PARK — When she was 3 years old, Julia Cook's father was murdered. Soon after, her mother turned to drugs and served stints in jail. When she was 8 or so, Cook's family lost their house and became homeless for a time, staying with friends, in cars and occasionally at hotels. Unable to take care of her daughter, Cook's mother sent her to Sacramento to live with cousins. There Cook stayed until she returned to Menlo Park at age 13 to live with her older sister. During those hard times, Cook said, she found chess a calming force and school a refuge. Now 17, she cries a lot, thinking of what she missed growing up. "I've always wanted a dad," she said in Bloomingdale's after a makeover Thursday. "I think I would have been a daddy's girl, but I never got the chance." Despite her personal struggles, Cook has persevered and made the best of the hand life has dealt her. Tonight, she is being honored as Youth of the Year by the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula. She was chosen not only because of the numerous challenges she has faced, but also because of the volunteer, student and person she has become. Her grade-point average at Menlo-Atherton High School hovers near 3.7, and Cook is thinking about enrolling at either Tennessee State University or St. Mary's College in Moraga. Cook said her sister Nikia, who lived on her own during high school, is her biggest role-model. "I always had her and she never had anybody," Cook said. She said most of the men in her life are either dead or behind bars. Nikia's husband, for example, was shot and killed in East Palo Alto, and her 28-year-old brother is in prison. "I learned to not depend on others," Cook said. "I'm very motivated, and I have a lot of drive." In between class and homework, Cook works 15 hours at the Menlo Park location of the Boys and Girls Club, which she first attended at age 6. She also works 15 hours a week at a restaurant. Plus, Cook is involved in track-and-field, and still plays chess. Cook said she sees her mother every day now and is trying to mend fences. She used to think it was her fault that her mother used drugs because she didn't want to take care of her. Now, Cook said, she realizes drug addiction is a disease. As for being honored by the organization that has played a huge role in her life, and where she now mentors many young children facing the same hurdles, Cook said it's a big deal. "I remember when I was their age, and I had these mentors I looked up too," she said. "Now it's my turn." Cook now moves on to a regional Youth of the Year competition and possibly on to state and national finals. The Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula is honoring Cook and other outstanding young members at 6 p.m. at the Four Season Hotel in East Palo Alto.

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