by Todd Cohen
photograph by Carla Williams
Some would say the odds have been stacked against Imani Abdullah-Lutes from day she was born 18 years ago. Those people don’t know this young woman.
When Imani’s biological mother went into labor, she was transported to WakeMed from prison, where she was serving a sentence for arson. Imani has met her father only once, when she was 7.
Imani’s aunt, whom she refers to as mom, has been her guardian. A daycare worker until she lost her job three years ago, Imani’s aunt also has four children of her own and has long relied on public assistance to help raise all of them. To Imani, these cousins are her sisters and brother.
On many days, the family has had no food. Imani has seen her aunt’s face bloodied by a boyfriend. They have moved five times in the past year.
All that hardship has fueled in Imani an inner drive to succeed in school as a ticket to a better life. Through force of will, she has carved her own path, transforming herself in the process from a recipient of assistance to a giver, and making herself an example for anyone in any circumstance.
“I learned that I have to focus on something to be in a better position in life,” says Imani, a senior at Southeast Raleigh High School who is scheduled to graduate May 30. “I knew that school was the only way I would succeed and go to college.”
Key to her academic success has been the hours she has spent every day after school for the past two years at The Club Teen Center, a program of Wake County Boys & Girls Clubs which this spring named her “Youth of the Year.”
“Imani is one of the most mature 18-year-olds I’ve ever been around,” says Chris Cook, club director. “The things she’s gone through. She didn’t want to live like that for the rest of her life.”
Imani, who maintains a 3.9 grade point average, will enroll this fall at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which was her first choice. She plans to major in social work and psychology so she can get a job as a social worker working with kids living in poverty.
“Those kids are usually going through something at their house,” she says. “They could be witnessing domestic violence or might not get a meal every night. There’s something going on their head, and I want to be able to figure out their thought process.”
Describe a typical day.
I wake up at 5:30 a.m. I get ready for school. School starts at 7:20. I walk to school. It takes 15 minutes. I’m in school until 2:30. Then I come to the Teen Center. I catch a school bus. I get to the Teen Center around 3 p.m. Pretty much every day I do a ton of homework. I’m usually there ’til it closes because a staff member gives me a ride home every day. I get home about 7:30. I usually cook dinner for my younger sister. It’s my older sister’s apartment. She has two jobs. I usually cook spaghetti or ribs or pork chops. I started cooking when I was 9. After dinner, I shower and then study if I have a quiz or test. I go to bed around 10:30 or 11.
How did you get connected to the Boys & Girls Clubs?
I started going two summers ago. I lived in a neighborhood (Parrish Manor, a mobile-home park) where they provided transportation for kids to go to the Teen Center.
What has the Teen Center meant to you?
It’s a place where I can get my homework done and not have to worry about any distractions at home. It’s also been my guide. A staff member I’ve become really close with, Nathaniel Myers, guides me and puts me on the right track.
As a freshman, you wanted to study medicine. What made you want to be a social worker?
Coming to the Teen Center, I see how the director and staff members help the teens. It inspired me, how much they helped me. I want to be able to help other kids.
You witnessed domestic violence against your aunt. What did you learn from that?
She’s had a couple of boyfriends where it just wasn’t a healthy relationship. That kind of took a toll on me and my younger sister. I learned that people only give you the respect that you allow them to give you. You need to be able to set boundaries. My aunt has done that.
How do you like high school?
Southeast is a pretty good school. I just would prefer it to be a little more diverse. The percentage of black people is 87 percent, so that’s pretty much all I see. I prefer greater diversity because it shows you different cultures and lets you be around people different from you.
What is your favorite subject?
History. I like learning about things that happened in the past. I really enjoy world history.
What have you learned from studying different civilizations?
The Mesopotamians pretty much started everything. The way they communicated, the barter system. They started their own system of plumbing. They used writing called cuneiform that looks like wood shapes. When you need a way to survive, you find a way. And that’s what they did.
What is your earliest memory of people helping other people?
I was maybe 10 years old. It was around Christmas. My mom couldn’t afford to get us gifts. So she signed us up for a program, “Shop with a Cop.” You get a gift card, and you get to shop with a police officer and get some Christmas gifts. I got myself winter coats and pants and shoes, and a scooter.
What inspires you?
My past experiences inspire me to become better and provide myself with a different life.
What do you do for fun?
I love watching movies and hanging out with my friends.
What’s your favorite movie?
Transformers. It has a lot of action in it. And I really love Bumble Bee, a transformer. I like Shrek because Shrek is green. My favorite color used to be green. It’s just a very funny movie. And I love the Harry Potter series. I’m a nerd. I enjoy watching all of them casting spells and all that nonsense.
What are you reading?
I read for fun a lot. I like reading mysteries or thriller novels. My favorite writer is probably Dan Brown.
What’s a pet peeve?
Clutter. A lot of people seem to think I have an extreme case of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and I kind of do.
What is something people don’t know about you?
I really love to draw anime characters. I love that you can draw the character however you want it to look. You can make the eyes any way you want to make the character look sad or happy. It’s all about what the artist sees.
Do you spend much time on Facebook?
Not any more. I used to. It’s kind of a waste of time, unless I want to get in contact with someone.
What is your philosophy of life?
A quote from Bob Marley: “Love the life you live, and live the life you love.”