Clay Aiken: A North Carolina Success Story
Born and raised in Raleigh, Clay Aiken is proud to be an eighth-generation North Carolinian. As much as he has traveled this country and the world, North Carolina has always remained home to him, a place of family, faith and foundation.
As for many North Carolinians, life was not always easy for Clay. His family suffered from domestic upheaval and financial woes. Raised in his formative years by a single working mother, Clay learned early the value of hard work and commitment. Learned too, that character is everything. That fighting for what's right and keeping your promises are what define a person. Not what they earn or where they live.
Even after his life took him on journeys he could never have predicted, Clay has remained steadfastly committed to making a difference, helping others around the globe, but especially within his community.
Today, more than ever, Clay wants to give back to the place and the people that made him the man he is.
Life in North Carolina taught Clay the value of education. How education was a ladder that could lift him--and others--up. A fact he never forgot, and that led him to become a teacher, with a particular consideration for children with special challenges.
Clay attended public schools in Wake County and took classes at Campbell University after graduation from high school. He worked as a local YMCA camp counselor and was spearheading an after-school program at Brentwood Elementary when the school principal approached him and asked if Clay would mind substituting in the special education classroom while the teacher was on maternity leave. Clay enthusiastically agreed.
He spent almost two years teaching children with autism aged 8-12. They were, he recalls, some of the best years of his life. "I thought I would be the teacher, but it turns out, those kids were the ones who taught me," he says, remembering fondly how the children opened his eyes to whole new ways of seeing the world.
Inspired by his time in the classroom, Clay turned his attention to the YMCA day camp he helped run during summers, while he studied special education at UNC-Charlotte. Clay convinced the Y to integrate its programs to include children with disabilities, a shift in philosophy that has since been adopted permanently.
Clay applied that same can-do mindset to his position as a one-on-one care provider through the Community Alternatives Program, a federally funded program for children with disabilities and their families. There he helped adolescents with autism integrate into the community via life skills training, allowing them to lead happier, healthier, and more connected lives.
It was the mother of one of Clay’s students who convinced him to audition for American Idol in 2002. After his success on Idol, it was important to Clay to use the platform of celebrity to bring awareness to the needs of children with disabilities and the importance of inclusion.
In one interview, Clay spoke of his hopes of beginning a non-profit organization to promote the assimilation of children with disabilities into non-academic settings, like after-school programs and summer camps. When the article ran, readers sent in more than $50,000 in donations.
Inspired by the outpouring of generosity, Clay started the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, later renamed the National Inclusion Project.
The National Inclusion Project fosters environments that allow all children to have the same opportunities to play and learn together. A huge success, the National Inclusion Project has satellite programs in 35 states today.
In 2004, Clay was honored to be asked by UNICEF to become an ambassador for education programs. Wanting to be an active participant and not simply a spokesperson, Clay dove in, visiting UNICEF programs to protect and educate “night commuters” fleeing rebel soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. He also traveled to Kabul and Bamiyan in Afghanistan to serve women and children after the fall of the Taliban regime. He has since traveled the world to places like Kenya, Indonesia, and Somalia; met with multiple leaders of nations in crisis; and raised more than $1 million to help fund UNICEF programs.
Ready to Serve
Always fascinated by government and its power to help and assist its people, an eighth-grade Clay wrote a letter to U.S. Senator and former N.C. Governor Terry Sanford. Sanford was a man Clay admired for his ability to look past politics to what was right for North Carolina in the long-term. The two met to have a nice long chat about what it means to take office and represent the public.
Having served as a teacher, mental health advocate, and international UNICEF ambassador, Clay is now turning his attention back home.
He is not a politician. But he is a North Carolinian who cares deeply about the future of his state.
Frustrated by what he has witnessed in Congress, Clay, like many Americans, would like to see a government that works for the people. He knows change is possible. He has experienced it himself, from changing the attitudes about autism and mental health, to observing progress in far flung countries, far less blessed than our own.
A true independent outsider, Clay believes that members of Congress should reach across party lines, listen to each other, and put the people they represent first.
And he believes that in 2014 the voters of the Second District can lead the way, and ignite that change across America.
“Politics shouldn’t be a game of tearing each other down. It should be about building everyone up,” he says. “Because our problems won’t be solved by one party or the other. It will require all of us.”