The mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, founded over 150 years ago in Hartford, Connecticut, is stated as one which will “enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.”
Spend an afternoon with local Boys and Girls Club of Northern Westchester (BGCNW) CEO Alyzza Ozer and Director of Teen Programming Athenia Lee, and you’ll see that mission in action. Arrive at 3 p.m. or so and witness area school buses rolling up to the BGCNW front door, and kids of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds jumping out, eager to take part in a myriad of the club’s after-school programs.
One such program, the prestigious High School Youth of the Year competition, recently concluded its local awards. From the six Club kids (see Finalist Group Photo here) chosen as High School finalists, Tatiana Restrepo was awarded Youth of the Year and Rolando Trinidad was named the Chris Cutri Memorial Award recipient. After this edition went to print, Tatiana competed in a state-level competition in Albany.
Historically, this state level sees approximately 45 competitors, each of whom has the chance to cap their previously submitted packages of background information with a prepared speech before a panel of judges. The winner of the state competition goes on to the Regional competition and the Regional finalists all get together to compete one more time in Washington DC. Ultimately, the winner in DC will begin a one-year term as teen spokesperson for all the Clubs’ members nation-wide.
How does a BGCNW member become eligible for High School Youth of Year? According to Ozer, the requirements (for any student in grades nine through twelve) are one year as a Club member plus 25 hours of community service for the year. However, Ozer is quick to point out that “most kids have much more.” She goes on to explain that the opportunities to give back to the community begin with preschool and continue on through the years, ultimately culminating in the youth leadership group known as the Keystone Club.
Keystone is a dynamic program invested in academic success and career exploration in addition to community service. With so much going on at the club at every level, it is no small surprise that Youth of the Year contenders have garnered many more years and greater hours than the basic eligibility requirements. In fact, says Ozer, “in many ways, Youth of the Year is the personification of the [BGCNW’s] club mission–academic strength, community commitment, civic responsibility.”
Adds Lee, a BGCNW Club kid herself and now, eight years into her position as Director of Teen Programming, sees herself as a mentor to all those following in her footsteps, “Some kids are eager to apply, others are reluctant and we need to encourage them. We largely let them self-select, but there’s a whole long application process and some need more encouragement than others.” She adds that, in some cases, the fear of public speaking gives pause to many a qualified student, so part of her mentoring goal is to help those students open up and trust that they have something worthwhile to share. Whether one-on-one or through some of the other Club programs, teens are empowered to find their voices.
Speaking of teen voices, I’m immediately struck by Tatiana’s poise and maturity when we are introduced. She has a firm handshake and a winning smile. Asked how she feels about her new Youth of the Year title, Tatiana thinks for a moment and then, with another bright smile, says “it’s a great honor.” She goes on to share that she’s been coming to the BGCNW for 14 years, and that the Club “shaped me as a person; taught me what to strive for, gave me confidence to reach my full potential and achieve my aspiration to go to college.”
In fact, Tatiana recently made her final college decision and will be attending Pace University come fall. She is proud that, like her older brother, she is part of her family’s first generation to attend college.
Cutri Award recipient Rolando is equal parts humble and proud of his honor too. A young man with a strong and confident demeanor and handshake, he too reflects upon his time with the BGCNW, saying “the Club has allowed me to show leadership and achieve my goals. In particular, Mr. Cutri has given me confidence to be strong and stand up for my beliefs.” Rolando plans to attend Manhattanville College where he will study sports business with the ultimate goal of becoming a sports agent.
National statistics have repeatedly shown that, from preschoolers on up through high school, children who participate in Boys & Girls Club programs perform better in school and make smarter life choices. Whether they are official Youth of the Year honorees or simply moving forward as more focused students, participatory community members and contributing citizens, BGCNW kids, without doubt, all deserve a round of heartfelt applause!
Check the Boys and Girls Club website, www.bgcnw.com, for the update about the state competition.