When Zeke Sumpter Ibarra walks into a room, it’s as if someone has turned on a light. He slips easily into conversation, chatting and laughing and making you feel as if you’ve known him your whole life. But the teen’s easygoing confidence is hard won after years of battling through grief, loss and shame.
His personal journey is a key reason why today, as a sophomore and vice president of his school’s WE Club, he is a tireless advocate for mental health and self-acceptance.
Zeke understands what it is to feel like an outsider. His parents split up when he was in the third grade and, while he describes himself as always having been “flamboyant,” he says back then he didn’t really know who he was. “I wasn’t really allowed to think about my identity.”
He was also bullied by a group of high schoolers who decided to make him their target. They would track him down after school and harass him, calling him names and throwing his belongings into the street, where he’d have to dodge oncoming traffic if he wanted to pick them up.
“The thing that hurt the most wasn’t them doing that, it was that nobody helped,” Zeke remembers. “It made me think I was worthless, and I don’t think anyone deserves that.”
After the death of a close family member, Zeke fell into a tailspin of depression. It was at that point that his parents paired him with a therapist to help him work through his grief—as well as his own questions about his identity.
“I had started to hide myself inside this shell,” he says. “I had to figure out: ‘who am I and what do I want to do with my life?’”
During that year of recovery, Zeke came out as gay to his family and friends. This was also around the time that he became a member of his school’s WE Club and found a sense of belonging.
“I realized this is what I really want to do. I want to help people,” he says. “I have this life, why not do something useful with it?”
Through the club, he has been able to grow his passion for helping others by taking part in awareness programs, like WE Volunteer Now. Sponsored by The Allstate Foundation, the program encourages students to volunteer and rally around a cause with the goal of creating real change on important social issues within their local community.
“We Volunteer Now has given us so many programs and support that have helped us create a change in our community.”
An example is the “positivity takeover” Zeke helped organize at his school, creating banners and messaging promoting courage, respect, love and acceptance.
Zeke credits the positive relationships he has with his family, friends and community, with making a conscious choice to embrace compassion and empathy.
As he looks toward his own future, he hopes to study media and communications at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and plans to use his newfound voice to speak for others.
“My dream is to travel and be a motivational speaker and share my story and help other people,” he says. “The cool thing is that I have this great foundation, this platform, that can help push me to anywhere I want to go.”
To learn more about Zeke’s journey, watch WE Day, August 9 at 8/7c on ABC.
Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor, and shameless dog person. A communications consultant who's lived in 7 countries, she loves a good story whether she's the one telling them or not.