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‘I want to change the world’

Athletic standout says faith, optimism, others inspire him to lead

To say that staff and students at Northview High School are effusive in recommending Ja’Kaurie Kirkland as a Student Leader is a gigantic understatement.

Over and over, it’s high praise for the senior and standout football and track star who is aiming for a scholarship to attend a Division I university. 

“This young man is kind to everyone, energetic, athletic, academically driven,” said math teacher Sarah Snyder. “He is a great asset to Northview and to this world. His energy and positive vibe is one-of-a-kind, and needs to be shared with everyone.”

Added Athletic Director Patrick Marsman: “I’ve been around kids for 20 years, and this kid? This kid is the top kid.”

Someone just introduced to Ja’Kaurie might ask, is this guy for real?

“He’s the real deal,” said Administrative Assistant Patty Zwyghuizen. “He’s genuine, and that’s who he has always been.”

Classmate Alina Pawl-Castanon has known Ja’Kaurie since third grade. “He’s the sweetest kid and always has been,” she said.

How so? He’s been known to stand in the hallway outside his classrooms and greet fellow students as they file past. He often writes scripture on his tests and assignments. 

“When I prepare and work hard, I know it’s not all me,” Ja’Kaurie said. “I want to show thanks for that.”

Northview High School senior Ja’Kaurie Kirkland with his mother, Sharoxie Tillman, before Homecoming last year

Walking the Walk 

He’s a four-year member of the school’s Diversity Youth Program, and president this year of WAVE — Welcoming, Accepting and Valuing Everyone — student groups that are intentional about interacting in positive ways with elementary and middle school students.

“We mostly just talk about accepting people and having empathy, which we really need in the world right now.”

On that, he walks the walk every day.

Drew Klopcic, who is freshmen and junior varsity football coach, said when he came to the district Ja’Kaurie was the first player to introduce himself, “with a firm handshake and his famous smile.” 

Before one game, Klopcic recalled, he wrote each and every player a personalized note.

Ja’Kaurie remembers that: “It was sophomore year, the last football game,” he said. “I stayed up late writing on flashcards what each teammate meant to me. I just wanted to show them how grateful I was for that brotherhood and how much I cared about them.”

And that’s coming from a star, both on the field and off. During his first game as a tailback, he ran for 220 yards. As a running back, Ja’Kaurie earned an all-conference honorable mention last year. 

In track, he was all-conference, all-state, and holds the school record in the 4×100 relay (42.83). He also was the 100-meter runner-up at conference, had a 100-meter personal best of 11.27, a 200-meter best of 23.32, and was team captain.

Ja’Kaurie Kirkland says having others to guide and support him have been key to his success

Legacy of Kindness

The second-oldest of five siblings, Ja’Kaurie said “I learn how to be a leader from my life coaches.” That’s what he calls those he looks up to, from his parents to his barber to the Young Men of Valor group he is involved in at church, to relatives and teachers he admires.

Ten or 20 years from now, he sees himself with a family of his own, perhaps, and with a career in psychology, hospitality or human resources. Or a combination of those.

“I have a plan, and it’s a big one, ” he said. “I want to change the world. I want to leave a legacy of kindness.”

Ja’Kaurie Kirkland

Matter of Choices

Ja’Kaurie wants to convey that he could have made different choices. He could be a different person than the young man so many of his peers and adults around him admire. He wants to make clear that his life is not always easy and happy.

“I’ve had tough times,” he said. “Some things can be piled on you, and it can be so much you feel like you can’t bear it. I face adversity, like in math, or on the field when I mess up on a play.

“I’m not confident sometimes. Not always confident in knowing if a friend is being real, or talking to a girl, or just how I see myself. I second-guess myself sometimes, sure.”

What’s important, he said, is that having others to support him — and more important, seeking them out — has been key.

“Without everyone in my life, everyone who is guiding me … showing me the way to be, to do the right thing and make the right choices even though it will sometimes be hard … It’s been a process. I could be someone else. You need people to lift you up.”

What is his advice to young people who don’t think they have that support?

“I know there are kids out there who think they don’t have anyone. I promise them there is someone out there. There is. I’m out there. I might not know you, but I’ll be there for you.”

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Ja’Kaurie Kirkland football videos

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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