Courtesy Clare
February 06, 2017 09:47 AM

When Clare was 10, she began going to the gym and meeting with a trainer as a way to escape her depression and issues at home.

“I use exercise as an outlet for my stress, so if I recently had a panic attack or a very stressful event, I go to the gym to relax my mind,” the Wisconsin-based middle schooler, now 14, tells PEOPLE. “I struggle, and I have for a while, with my self-esteem, and exercise has helped me learn that I shouldn’t change my physical body, but my mindset about my body.”

Clare’s current trainer, American Council on Exercise Master Trainer Shana Verstegen, says she has noticed a major change in her client, not only physically but mentally as well.

“She was very, very quiet when I first met her,” Verstegen tells PEOPLE. “The beginning of her journey was getting her comfortable with exercise, and finding exercises she enjoyed. She started getting stronger and learned how to do the exercises, and we were able to add more weight.”

“It’s so much fun seeing the physical strength grow, and with that her personality has completely changed,” she continues. “She has come out of that shell. Her confidence as a person has grown, and I truly attribute that to the physical strength she’s gaining in the gym and the interactions she has with other people at the gym. It’s something tangible that she can be proud of.”

Clare says finding a supportive environment at the gym has been a major factor in the growth of her self-confidence.

“The community has helped me colossally,” she says. “Everybody around me is very positive about body image and rewarding for doing a good job at anything, so I feel encouraged as well as motivated.”

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With her newfound confidence, Clare has turned her focus to helping others who may feel voiceless. She regularly speaks out in support of gender equality and racial justice, leads a gay-straight alliance at her middle school, and creates artwork to promote body positivity.

“There has never been a time in my life when I have not felt compelled or obligated to help others, whether I share their struggles or not, to gain the rights they deserve,” she says. “Recently I decided that I should start speaking up even more than I was already, because injustice is only getting stronger, and I should combat it with more strength than ever.”

Clare hopes to be able to be a part of implementing real changes in her lifetime.

“I would like to see more young girls encouraged to go into science and mechanics,” she says. “I would like to see the minimum wage be raised, and I would like to finally see a day in my life when I can walk down the street and feel safe.”

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