Teen leader ready to leap into adulthood
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
But not through college prep courses or expensive summer programs.
The 18-year-old, who graduated cum laude from Radford High School this month, already has experienced enough in life that moving to Wisconsin to attend St. Norbert College is something she's actually looking forward to.
Graben handles her own finances, goes grocery shopping, cooks dinner for the family once a week, shuttles her younger siblings around and helps with three loads of laundry a day. She has lived in different states, traveled to Germany and survived being the only girl among four brothers.
A Sterling Scholar of Foreign Language nominee, Graben was recently named the 2001 Youth of the Year for Hawai'i by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for her outstanding leadership at the Aliamanu Teen Center, which, by coincidence, looks like a typical college campus hangout.
She's ready and more than willing to take that leap into adulthood and independence.
And she always has more goals in mind, such as majoring in child psychology with a minor in secondary education. Such as studying in Germany for two years. Such as joining the Peace Corps after graduation to encourage AIDS awareness in Africa. Such as getting a doctorate in psychology.
Humbly, she shrugs off compliments: "I just had to decide on what to do with my life."
Not a typical teenager
Walking with her around the Aliamanu Military Reservation, where she lives with her parents and three younger brothers (her older brother is in the military, stationed in South Korea), it's hard to believe Graben is still a teenager. Unassuming and unpretentious, she seems more together than most 20-somethings, describing the facility with effortless diction and talking about military life with insightful wit.
"She's a very natural speaker and gets her point across well," said Sandy Salisbury, coordinator of Teen 2000, the high school program that oversees the teen center. "She believes in what she's saying."
Salisbury met Graben four years ago, when the reservation's teen center re-opened and Graben joined the program. In those years, Salisbury has witnessed Graben's growth through her involvement with the reservation Teen Council and other programs the center offers.
"She started out as a really wonderful young lady with tremendous potential in leadership and intelligence," Salisbury said. "She kept developing what she has naturally. She sets a good example for other teenagers. She's an outstanding young leader."
Life revolves around center
The Aliamanu Teen Center is the heart of the military housing area. Two gyms, a fitness center, an expansive playground, an inline skating rink and a daycare facility surround the teen center, which regularly serves about 140 kids. Afternoons and Friday nights are particularly packed, with teens doing homework on computers, playing video games, shooting pool in the adjoining game room or just cruising on the couches, talking story between snacking.
"I think this is one of the best programs the Army has to offer," Graben said.
The center offers various opportunities for teens to make friends, explore their interests and get involved. There are clubs for aspiring deejays, techies, pool sharks, gardeners and budding chefs. Tomorrow's leaders, including Graben, can participate in the teen council or help organize teen get-togethers and conferences. She has helped plan community teen dances and socials; held the offices of president, vice president and secretary in the center's Keystone Club; was active in helping organize the Hawai'i Foodbank for Make a Difference Day; and chaired the Youth Leadership Forum.
One of the programs Graben is most proud of participating in is the Youth Sponsorship Program, which helps pre-teens and teens who have just moved to Aliamanu get acclimated to their new surroundings.
An Army kid all her life, Graben knows how frustrating and daunting moving into a new community can be.
"Military kids move around a lot. Nothing's stable," Graben said. "But I think being a military child has made me a better person, more diverse. But sometimes I want to be in one spot and know people longer than four years."
Hawai'i has been the Grabens' longest stay, at about nine years. Though she was born in Alabama, lived in Colorado and has family in Michigan, Graben considers the Islands her home.
"It's going to be weird going to the Mainland" for college, said Graben, who chose St. Norbert because it's close to family in Wisconsin and her grandmother in Michigan. "I'm going to miss the food, especially real Chinese food and sticky rice."
But she's taking everything in stride and is even competing for the title of Pacific Youth of the Year this week at Disneyland. The prize is a $5,000 scholarship a year's college tuition for her.
"I did my best," she said about winning the Hawai'i title. "All I can do is my best."