Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Edition 26 — Lena Yee

A Second Home

When Lena Yee was little, her father asked her to draw pictures for him. In middle school, she experimented with graffiti and taught herself web design. And in 2009, as a sophomore at West Roxbury Academy, she learned that a nonprofit called Artists For Humanity was hiring. Many things led Yee to the doors of AFH, but it was the second home she eventually made here that compelled her to stay.

“Everybody was so welcoming, and it felt like a second home. I always wanted to [go to the studio] right after school and learn new things. That was my first job, so I was like, ‘Wow! Is this how every job will be?’”

Yee remembers her first days at AFH and being blown away by how incredibly welcoming it was. “There’s no judgment,” she said. “It was such a positive environment and everyone was willing to teach you things.” She recalls one particular day in the Painting Studio — since traditional painting was never Yee’s strong suit or interest, she asked Ryan Conley if the studio did any graffiti work. Ryan led her to Rob Gibbs [Co-Founder/Director of the Painting Studio] who showed her his spray paint and graffiti work. Fifteen year old Yee was delighted. “Once you display interest in something, [the mentors at AFH] are like, ‘Come with me! Let me show you what I do!’ It just opened whole new horizons for me.”

While Yee enjoyed learning about graffiti from Rob, she eventually transferred to the Photography Studio and Haidan [Hodgson] became her mentor. She remembers her first collaborative studio project with a client called WriteBoston. Teens had to curate a series of photos from AFH’s archive or custom shoot to integrate into stories written by WriteBoston’s teen authors for their ‘Teens in Print’ publication.

“That’s when I was like, yeah, this is my studio. I love this. This is the best studio of all the studios!”

There was no doubt that Yee enjoyed her work in the Photography Studio, but at the same time she struggled with feeling comfortable with herself and finding her path. “I was still trying to find out more about myself and where I belong,” she admitted. “I didn’t know how I was going to keep moving forward with my life.” It was only when Haidan recognized potential in Yee that she began to believe in herself as well. “She started telling me to lead projects with the group, and she’d say, ‘Okay Lena, I’m leaving for the day. Here’s the key. Take care of the studio’… I was like, oh my god, you trust me with this?”

“That’s what I learned from AFH — leadership skills, organization, and work ethics in general.”

Yee’s proudest moment at AFH was when she led a project collaboration with Adobe. After brainstorming, Yee’s team decided to create an animation stop motion video called Who Do You Think You Are? about a grey crayon named Grey Greg. Throughout the short animation, Grey Greg went from feeling like an outcast to being proud of who he is. “That’s how the kids at AFH are,” Yee explained. “They come in and think that they don’t fit in, but then they meet so many people and realize, ‘Yeah I fit in! I love being myself.’”

For Yee, every day at AFH produced a good memory, and she is eternally grateful for the space it provided for her and other teens. “[At AFH] you’re building a good foundation and you’re building a family,” she said. “Without AFH I wouldn’t have had a home. I would’ve been hanging out with a bad group of friends.” Instead, Yee spent countless afternoons creating in the Photography Studio and often hung out with her AFH friends after work.

“AFH is so great with giving back to the community and giving teens a place to be safe after school instead of being in the streets.”

After graduating high school in 2012, Yee pursued higher education at UMass Boston. Yee enjoyed her time at AFH, but she knew that art was just a hobby for her. She changed her major three times before graduating in 2016 with a degree in Exercise and Health Sciences. She then worked at the Partnership Program at the YMCA in Quincy, where she became an inclusion rehab trainer.

During her time at the YMCA, many of Yee’s clients encouraged her to become a nurse. She was skeptical at first, but was once again encouraged by the potential others saw in her. “I always doubt myself,” Yee reflected. “But a lot of [my clients] motivated me, so I was like what the heck.” With her application greatly strengthened by client testimonials, Yee got into Nursing School the day after she applied. In 2018, she graduated from Northeastern University’s accelerated program for nursing and she’s been working as a Telemetry Rehab Nurse since.

“Without AFH, I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t have come as far as I have.”

Yee is still in contact with many of the people she met at AFH, and every year she attends The Greatest Party On Earth. “I can never leave,” she said laughing. “If AFH is opening a nursing job, I’m here!” Today, Yee still enjoys photography, though she shoots more on her phone than a DSLR, and enjoys trying new mediums on the side. “I’m starting to learn how to do watercolor now!” she said excitedly. “I feel like art in general is a good therapy session…it helps me express my emotions and relax my mind.”

“30 years is great!” Yee said regarding the organization’s 30-year anniversary “I feel like AFH has improved a lot and came a long way from where it started.” Yee remembers how AFH was expanding the building while she was there. “They tore off the wall and Susan was like, ‘Yeah, we’re expanding! We’re going to have more teens!’” In the future, Yee predicts that AFH alumni will start their own branches of the organization in other low income communities.

For Yee, AFH gave her the opportunities, resources, and support that she needed to succeed. Not only that, but the people at AFH taught her to embrace who she is and to believe in herself. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself,” she’d tell her younger self. “And don’t be afraid you won’t be accepted — you will meet a group of people who will accept you for who you are.”

Written by Casey Chiang

CREATIVE JOBS FOR CREATIVE TEENS