As 14-year-old Kiara Raymond flips through a magazine, quietly singing Sam Smith's "I'm Not the Only One" to herself, she exudes confidence — and I'm struck by the contrast between this image and the one she just described to me.
We're at De-Zone, the teen centre in the basement of the West Island YMCA, where I'm doing interviews in preparation for Daybreak's live broadcast at the YMCA in Pointe-Claire Friday.
When I asked Kiara about the teen centre, I thought she'd list off her favourite activities. De-Zone offers homework help, gym time, cooking class, games night and many other teen activities — free of charge — Monday to Saturday.
Instead, she told me about a heartbreaking moment that happened three years ago. She said kids at school were judging her.
'Because you're black'
"They would tell me 'you're fat' and then some guys would tell me 'oh I won't date you because you're black' or 'I won't like you because you're black,'" Kiara said.
One day, friends convinced Kiara to approach a boy she liked and he rejected her saying "you're big and you're dark."
She was crushed.
Kiara says Melissa Keller, then-coordinator of De-Zone, offered comfort.
"I cried with her. She told me everything was going to be alright," Kiara said.
"And (Melissa said) the fact he didn't accept me for me,that meant he wasn't right for me...and I was too young anyway," Kiara said.
Much has changed since then.
Kiara says the De-Zone coordinator suggested she tell the boy how badly he hurt her feelings. She did. He eventually apologized and they're now friends.
This year, De-Zone's summer schedule of activities kept Kiara, who has Type 2 diabetes, on the move with other teens and she lost at least 10 pounds.
"My doctor loved it, he was happy, he was telling me whatever I'm doing keep doing it," she said with pride.
Kiara now goes running with a friend, she's trying to eat healthier and lose weight, but not too much weight.
"I don't want to be skinny, I don't want to be pretty, I want to be healthy," she said.
Melissa Keller says Kiara is no longer shy or afraid to create bonds with people.
Realizing she's beautiful
"She's outspoken, she's opinionated, she's such a beautiful person inside and out, and I think she's finally starting to realize that," Keller said.
Kiara's mother, Sendy Duplan, says Kiara has matured since joining De-Zone. As a single mother raising two kids, she appreciates the extra support.
"Sometimes (Kiara) doesn't really listen to what I tell her. It's easier for someone else to (get) through. I'm totally grateful for this program," Duplan said.
No one is more grateful than Kiara.
She plans to stay in the program through her teen years and once she's an adult, she hopes to join the staff.
"De-zone means family to me. I love it here so much, they're like a second family to me beside my mom and my brother," she said.