(Photo by Todd Kirkland/AP Images for Boys & Girls Clubs of America.)

BY Hannah E. Jones/Saporta Report

On Tuesday, June 15, the Georgia Aquarium’s beluga whales and stingrays were joined by excited teenagers and their families from all around the Southeast. They gathered for a night of celebration at the annual Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) Southeast Youth of the Year ceremony.

This year, 18 teen candidates from around the region came to Atlanta to celebrate their personal accomplishments, connect with each other and honor the impact that BGCA has had on their lives. There were also many proud parents and club advisors in attendance. 

Prior to the event, each student had already been selected as the State Youth of the Year and awarded a $2,500 scholarship. Metro Atlanta’s Elias D. was selected as Georgia Youth of the Year, and Ovani N. of the Robins AFB Youth Program was named Georgia Military Youth of the Year. After the students took the stage, emcee Ashley ShahAhmadi helped present the next slate of award winners.

(L) Abigail A. and (R) Hannah W. with BGCA President and CEO Jim Clark. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/AP Images for Boys & Girls Clubs of America.)

The 2023 Southeast Youth of the Year winners are:

  • Southeast Youth of the Year: Abigail A., Greater Washington (Virginia Youth of the Year)
  • Military Southeast Youth of the Year: Hannah W., Hurlburt Field Youth Program (Florida Military Youth of the Year)

The event also served as a fundraiser and by the end of the night, over $1 million was raised to support BGCA’s work.

For over 75 years, BGCA has used this recognition program to celebrate its exceptional Club Kids. Headquartered in Atlanta, BGCA has over 5,000 locations and serves around 3.6 million young people.

Senior Vice President of Youth Development for the BGCA, Jennifer Bateman, told SaportaReport that the leadership development program helps build “confidence and self efficacy,” while also creating “a network of supporters that believe in them.”

“The feedback we get from people that have supported them is, ‘These [kids] have shown up like they’re 30 years old,’” Bateman said. “They’re eager go-getters, they’re not afraid of failure, they’re not afraid of asking for support. It’s those kinds of skills that can take an entire lifetime to achieve and we see that much younger.”

With help from sponsors, both winners are set to receive a $20,000 scholarship. From there, six teens from each corner of the nation will progress with the chance to be named National Youth of the Year, securing a $50,000 scholarship. The National Military Youth of the Year will receive an additional $20,000. 

“Boys & Girls Clubs are needed now more than ever,” President and CEO Jim Clark said. “Young people today are up against so many odds and the old adage of, ‘When I was your age,’ really no longer applies today. But I’m constantly filled with hope because young people like those taking the stage here tonight and those throughout the country are extremely resilient and brimming with possibility, hope and opportunities. It’s our mission at Boys & Girls Clubs of America to ignite that potential for every child and team who enters the doors of a Boys and Girls Club.”

During her speech, Hannah W. talked about the challenges of being a military kid — constantly moving, battling chronic migraines and an ongoing sense of impermanence. But with the bonds she formed at her local Club, she found solace.

“It wasn’t until I began attending the Youth Center that I felt I had a safe place outside of my home. One step into the Youth Center and all the baggage I was carrying slowly drifted away,” Hannah W. said. “The staff welcomed me with open arms and I created relationships that I would have never had. I learned skills such as creativity, organization and teamwork, which help me in my leadership roles today. I learned that adversity is necessary in life. Without adversity, we may never unlock the full potential of our strengths. I used to ask the question, ‘Why me?’ But now, I say, ‘Thanks for choosing me.’”

Abigail A. also described her time with BGCA — spanning from her first day at kindergarten through her high school graduation. She describes growing up as a first-generation immigrant, struggling with body image issues and facing racism. But the support of her Club helped her through those trying times.

“My Club is a small converted three bedroom apartment and though it’s much smaller than the other Clubs, it has had a huge impact on me personally and as an advocate for others,” Abigail A. said. “I am very passionate about inclusivity because [this] has always been a place where I felt that I mattered. I learned to embrace my culture and appreciate my own unique journey.”

She continued: “I am a proud Club kid who is evolving into the best version of myself. I am eternally grateful to my club for re-igniting that flame so I can set the world on fire.”

When hearing from the finalists, their passion and enthusiasm was palpable as they expressed their gratitude for the opportunities provided by BGCA. 

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