It's an age when a lot of kids rebel. For one reason or another, they decide to close up and go inside themselves; keeping everyone else at bay, especially their parents. The early teenage years are a hard time to navigate.
Fourteen-year-old Valencia Perry knows how it feels.
The Centennial Middle School student went through a period earlier this year when she withdrew from her tight-knit family and kept herself in her room. Her mom, Collette Washington, says her daughter wouldn't talk and just kept everything inside her. The single mother of five, with Valencia being the youngest, says her previously outgoing daughter changed; she became quiet and would go to her room when the family would get together at the house.
"I noticed she was going to her room more, and wouldn't join the family when we all got together," says Washington. "I didn't know how to get her to open up. I was worried, but I didn't know what to do."
She also started acting out.
Washington says concern grew to action when she began receiving calls from Valencia's teachers saying the teen was talking back and causing problems for them at school.
Collette turned to area programs at the Oklahoma County Jail and other local programs for troubled teens. They helped. But one day in September, she got some help from an unlikely source: Valencia herself.
The 8th grader called her one day after school and said she was trying out for the school's football team. She needed mom's help to go get a physical.
"At first I was like, what? Why would you do that?" said Washington. "It came out of left-field. I mean she had played basketball, but football? My daughter…?"
"But then I thought about it, and thought, this may be a good idea. Let's see how she does. We took her to get a physical and she went out for the team."
Valencia tried out and soon found out she made it.
That was two months ago and mom says Valencia has done more than a one-eighty; her attitude has completely changed. For mom, football was a blessing. Washington says the more her daughter got involved in the team, the less she acted out at home and at school.
"I used to get calls from the teacher's at school. I haven't gotten a call in weeks," said Washington.
Valencia says football is fun. That's why she plays. She gets to hang out with friends and spend time with them after school. But that's not the only thing it gives her. She says she also enjoys it because it gives her a way to take her frustrations out; she takes it out on the other team and leaves it all on the field. And that's where it stays when she goes home.
"I just wanted to try new things, and see if I like it, I tried it and I like it," she said. "(I get to) spend time with friends. When I play football it lets me take all my anger out on the other team."
It's also a positive way for her to receive discipline and structure. Something her mom says has ironically been just the thing Valencia has enjoyed receiving.
Valencia's position on the field is not one you would expect. A lot of girls who go out for their school's football team might play kicker. Not in Valencia's case. The stocky 14-year-old plays defensive and offensive tackle for the Centennial Bison.
Her coach Danny Howard says Valencia, number 66, has turned into a leader on the team. She helps him guide the boys and keep them in line, if they need it.
"She keeps other kids in check, she doesn't have a problem doing that also, being outspoken and a team leader," said Howard. "At the end of the day she can line up with the best of them. She can kick their butts."
Howard says Valencia's role as a leader on the team also bleeds over into an inspiration off of it too. He says since she's joined the team, she's motivated other girls who have started to ask about trying out for the team as well.
"She gave another (potential) player the courage to come up and ask me about coming out too," says Howard. "She's setting the bar for the other kids; to come out and let their frustrations out on the football field."
He added one of the things he's noticed the most about Valencia is her determination. She said she was going to do something and she did it. He says he's had girls ask about coming out for the team over the years he's coached, but Valencia is the only one to follow through.
"She got a physical that day (and was ready to come out the next)," Howard said.
For Washington, her daughter's move for school sports was the final key in a series of things she was doing to help her child out. She says counselors at area programs were also an important part of helping her provide Valencia with what she needed to open up.
"As a single mother, it's hard. You're by yourself and when you have a family to support, you have to be at work all day," said Washington. "I got to the point that I turned to some of the area programs for help. The Oklahoma County Jail's Scared Straight program was one of them, and so was Eagle Ridge Institute."
While things got tough for a while, mom says it was all a series of lessons for Valencia to get to where she is at today. Her grades have gone up, and she seems to have a lot more self-confidence, Washington says.
"All the experiences she had to go through…they speak very highly of her at Eagle Wings," said Washington. "It makes me feel good that teachers don't call me anymore. Now, we were all together (recently) for my grandson's birthday. We all had a great time, including her."
Washington's advice to other parents? Don't give up. She says it may not be easy but there are programs and professionals out there if you look.
"It's very frustrating, but being a parent we can't give up. We should never give up on our child. I think it's up to us to take that extra step to find these programs that are going to work for our children. Like I said, it's not easy; especially when you don't know where to start but then when you run into a person that is willing and able to give you information and send you to these different places don't let your pride stand in the way. Get the help for your child."
She also says it's important for children, especially from single-parent homes, to find a mentor.
"Sometimes being a parent we can't reach our children like we want to like a mentor could; and for the child to have someone else in their lives that they can talk to and confide in. Sometimes they're just scared to talk to their parents. So I think all of these programs are here and available in Oklahoma City. I had to research but they were worth it."
Washington's love for her child is evident. Even though she works long hours at a local food manufacturing center, a place Valencia sometimes accompanies her to and helps her do small tasks on slow weekends, she is present in her child's life; not something always found in single-parent homes.
Collette reached out to the community and found the help her daughter needed; but while Valencia held the key her mom also seems to have helped her turn it.
At the last game of the season, as the Bison took on Star Spencer, mom sat in the stands with her brood cheering on their youngest and her teammates. The group consisted of mom, two of Valencia's sisters, her brother, and her seven nieces and nephews – all of whom were there to make sure she knew they were behind her. The family, by far the largest group in the mostly empty stands, stood up and cheered every time the Bison got the ball.
In the middle of the second quarter, Valencia stood on the sidelines after grabbing a drink and catching her breath. Coach looked over and called her on the field. The teen ran out and took her position. As Valencia's fingers hit the line in an offensive drive, her brother snapped pictures and her mom and sisters began to cheer.
After the play, mom turned to explain why she made it a priority to be there.
"Like I told her…I've never stopped loving you. That's why I'm here supporting her."