Kayla Wilson: Keeping Hope Alive

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Kayla Wilson

Jane Goodall once said, “It’s easy to become hopeless. So people must have hope: the human brain, the resilience of nature, the energy of young people and the sort of inspiration that you see from so many hundreds of people who tackle tasks that are impossible and never give up and succeed.”

This week has been one to give me hope. The sun has been shining and the world let out a collective breath on Wednesday. Another thing that has given me hope is a few young people that I’ve encountered in the past few weeks, one of them is a young man, Trevor Sadler, who I interviewed back in 2007 and I’m happy to say is doing wonderful things now, the other is this week’s portrait, a dynamic 24 year old who has made it a mission to build community for  LGBTQ+ youth, families, and allies. 

Kayla Wilson started her non-profit Metamorphosis Boutique in Florida and has now opened a second chapter here in Philadelphia with plans to expand in the near future. Metamorphosis Boutique is run by a collective of young volunteers. Self described as a mutual aid project — and not a  charity — in addition to providing clothing and supplies at no cost, they also exist as a form of political participation, one in which participants take responsibility for the caring of one another and changing political conditions. 

Where do you hail from?

It’s kind of hard to answer, I’m kind of from all over. I was born in North Carolina but I spent most of my childhood in Florida. I lived in the Midwest for a period of time and now I’m here in Philadelphia with a few stops in-between. I’ve been here for about two years now and I’m feeling pretty rooted in Philadelphia. I have a lot of family here which is great, so this is where I’m planning on staying for a while. 

You seem very committed to community and service, is that something you got from your family? 

Yeah, I grew up with my grandparents, and my grandma set a really good example for me. She was a super strong woman and she was the one who instilled moral values like altruism and being kind to others. She always involved me in different service oriented work. I think the first time I volunteered I was 10. She volunteered so often at my school that she ended up getting a job there! She worked in what was then called the Special Ed department and I would help her with work. My dad and my mom are not in my life so I was raised by my grandparents and they really instilled morals and values in me . The family I have here are sort of half relatives, and I moved here in part because I wanted to learn more about them. My half sister is here, though it feels weird to make that distinction because we’re really close. It’s an interesting background, I have family and partial family in several different states. 

How did the family get so separated? 

It’s kind of an intense story, my mom got pregnant when she was 18. I’m a twin and she was in a pretty precarious situation. My dad was not a really good person and she started to realize it right after she had us, or maybe when she was pregnant, so she left North Carolina to move back to Florida where my grandparents lived. I don’t know much about him, but she struggled for a long time with addiction and sadly succumbed to it when I was 7. She did try to get treatment but wasn’t successful, and in fact was on leave from treatment when she overdosed. I have a lot of respect for my grandparents for stepping up and taking us in. It couldn’t have been easy to suddenly have to care for twins. 

It’s tough, my aunt was murdered by her husband when I was young, leaving my two cousins behind. They came and stayed with us for a minute and then were adopted by another aunt. 

There were periods in my childhood when I stayed with an aunt. It was cool because she started her own cafe that I got to work in. It was my first job. Looking back, it was a tragedy for sure, but I was lucky in that I had extended family, some of them not even blood but they were all very supportive. And my grandparents were young themselves, I think my grandmother was only 18 when she had my mom. So it was a tragic occurrence, but it brought us closer together. 

What’s a favorite family memory?

There were a couple, especially around the holidays. My grandfather is a quirky character, and one year he was up on the roof on Christmas Eve with a headlamp on. I remember a neighbor coming over, like, “What’s going on!” You’d think maybe he was pretending to be Santa, but no, he just suddenly decided that he wanted more lights up and so up he went. Of course everyone driving around to see the lights saw him. All my friends were like, “Your grandpa is so weird. On the roof Christmas Eve with a light strapped to his head!” I don’t know why but it made me laugh, it was so silly. It still makes me smile. 

Is your twin identical or fraternal and any weird twin things?

We’re fraternal but yeah, we had our own twin language when we were kids. And we have a weird timing thing, I don’t know how to explain it but we’ll both be up at the strangest times, we’re in relationships at the same time, we both get new jobs at the same time, our lives are very parallel even though we haven’t lived in the same state for years. 

Well, you shared a womb together for 9 months.

[Laughing] That’s true! And we share a birthday. 

Is she queer?

No, and it caused a lot of tension at first. I came out when I was very young and it was difficult for everyone, but it’s okay now. 

At least you weren’t an identical twin, she could have had women hitting on her thinking she was you! 

That would have been something. But no, we don’t look anything alike, in fact for twin day at school, she actually took another girl who looked more like her than I do! 

[Laughing] How rude!

It was! I don’t let her forget that one.

What are you doing these days?

I have an internship with a great company called Hopeworks. It’s a trauma informed work readiness program. You learn the basics of coding and other technical skills. They also have a scholarship that I was able to get along with course credits, so I’m going to be starting school next month at Camden County Community College. Some of what I do is help with community building, which is kind of my thing, and I also do peer counseling, something I was doing in Florida. There you can get certified for very specific things like counseling for people who have experienced Adverse Childhood Events or ACES, and as someone with lived experience of going through a lot of trauma at an early age, who has come though it, I like to try to be an example that your situation doesn’t have to define your future. I mean, I’m 24 and just getting to college; I dropped out of high school and got my GED, I moved across the country with a friend in a van, all angsty and young, and I did things that weren’t necessarily going down a good path, but I was able to turn it around and now try to give back. 

What do you mean by trauma informed work?

So we take into account that people have had things happen to them that might impact their ability to do workforce development. And so, instead of asking youth, “what’s wrong with you?” We ask, “what happened to you?” There’s a lot more to it of course.  

So let’s talk about Metamorphosis Boutique. How did it start?

I was receiving services from a non-profit and I noticed that a lot of us needed clothing but when we asked for help, the best they could do was give us vouchers for a place that only gave away professional clothing. And that’s not what we wanted or needed, so I started hosting clothing swaps. At my house, very informal, nothing to brag about. But I got so many clothes, I thought, “what if I create an environment that’s inviting, that feels good to go into? Maybe this can be more than just a pile of clothes on the floor.” I wanted to ensure dignity for people who were coming, especially since the clothes were free. I’ve never charged for anything, but I wanted a perceived value for the thing we were giving away. I wanted it to seem more like a storefront, more structured. 

Where can people find you?

We were doing pop-ups, but the pandemic has shut a lot of that down and we’ve had to pivot to more of a virtual situation. And we’ve expanded our services, we offer peer support, and once I become a licensed social worker we’ll offer counseling as well. We help with basic needs whether that’s social or emotional needs, help navigating various systems, legal resources, food, housing, etc. We partner with a number of other organizations and we have a pretty comprehensive list. I’ve been using non-profit and social services since I was 17, so I’m very familiar with the intricate details of getting help and know how difficult it can be to navigate it on your own. 

I’m not directly dealing with the clothes as much right now, but there is a young person that I have been mentoring, Maya Jennings, and she’s doing care packages among other things. She’s 17 years old and she’s incredible. She was doing basically the same thing, but with an emphasis on gender equality in clothing, so we decided to merge efforts. She has been getting a ton of donations including a lot of brand new items. She’s been making up beautiful packages and hand delivering them. We’ve been distributing masks and hand sanitizers and other personal protective equipment. I’m so impressed with her, we have a tendency to underestimate young kids and what they’re able to do. She’s so passionate about the work she does and comes up with really innovative ideas. She’s been doing virtual shopping sessions with her phone, and video chats with people. 

We’ve also been supporting other mutual aid projects. My thought is always, how can I support the people who are doing good work? There’s so much need, in great deal because of the pandemic, that we’ve found our focus shifting from just being a cute little clothing pop-up, to being more of a support. If there are things that are shared with me, turning around to share them with others. Being new to the area, I want to be very conscientious of the fact that there’s a beautiful history of organizing here, people who have been doing this type of work for a long time. Paying deep respects to that and being aware of the space that I’m taking up.  

If folks want to help, what are the top 3 material goods needed and what are the top non material things you need help with?

We always can use PPE; hand sanitizers, face masks, things of that nature. In addition to distributing them to help people stay safe, it helps protect us when delivering our services. New socks and underwear are always needed, but they cannot be used, even if cleaned. New and packaged only. And we can always use laundry detergent, we’re very particular about making sure that our clothes are clean and sanitized. So any laundry detergent we can get our hands on is very helpful. There’s a wishlist on our website too. We’re also looking to get a storage unit, or a clean place to keep inventory. 

I just got a box full of masks from a great company called Ravi Nova . They have masks with clear fronts, they call them “Smile masks.” My mother is about 90% deaf and has to rely on lip reading and expressions to help decipher what people are saying. She lives in the John C. Anderson senior housing and the company sent an entire box to me, I’d be happy to pass some on to you. 

That would be amazing. Accessibility is really important to use, so we would really find them useful! To answer your question about non material help, we are always looking for people who can support us on social media and share our story. We have other virtual volunteer service oriented opportunities that you can find on our website. There’s a form to fill out for people who want to donate time and support our vision. 

I’ve interviewed a lot of people who have done virtual yoga classes and mindfulness and exercise classes. I can ask around if you do that sort of thing. 

We’re open to try different things, we’ve actually had a number of speakers on different topics in the past. 

What’s the most unusual item you’ve received?

We’ve received used underwear, but the most unusual thing that comes to mind was a big lawn ornament

Finish the sentence, “I’m so queer that…”

I had a girlfriend in elementary school. 

Since you deal with clothing, what’s a style period you’d love to go back to?

I love the ‘80s. The big hair in outlandish, fun colors, the clothes. People make fun of it, but I’ve always been into that fashion, the fishnets and the intense makeup, it’s just so fun. I draw a lot of inspiration for what I wear now from that era.

If you could try something once with no risk of danger, what would you do? And don’t say skydiving! 

That’s what I was going to say! I guess just traveling is risky these days, I’ve never been out of the country, so I’d love to travel. 

What’s the best item you’ve received?

Several beautiful Versace and Gucci suits. To be able to give them away for free was so great. People were like, “Are you sure this is free? Do you need to see my ID?” And we got to say, “No, you get to take it home, it’s yours, no strings attached. Enjoy!” Those kinds of days are what this is all about.