Boys and Girls Clubs throughout America help thousands upon thousands of kids every day. They teach life skills, promote social responsibility, and show children that there are safe places that they can go to learn and be loved. On Thursday night at the Avalon Manor in Merrillville, the Boys and Girls Club of Northwest Indiana recognized one teenager through the 2015 Youth of the Year program.
Families, friends, staff, and members of the Boys and Girls Clubs that call Lake County home gathered to play witness to this special occasion. Five young men and women sat at the front of the room, each a representative of a different club from the area and a prime example of how great one can be when given a chance and the right tools to do achieve their goals.
“All of these kids have three things in common,” PJ Jones, Club Director of the Northwest Indiana Hammond Club said. “They have aspirations to succeed academically, leadership, and wisdom… We have young people who have made it to the finish line of this long journey and they are going to share their testimonies with us.”
Ryan Smiley President at Boys & Girls Clubs of Porter County came along with staff from that county’s clubs to show support for their neighboring Lake County.
“This is our premier event for our club members so it’s great to share their stories with our community leaders and supporters,” Smiley said. “As the neighboring club in Porter County we’re supportive of our partners in Lake County.”
Each Boys and Girls Club chooses one member as their winner, then it is narrowed down to one winner per organization, then those winners compete at a state level, then regionally, and then the regional winners will compete in the national Youth of the Year Competition.
“The Youth of the Year Program has impacted so many kids’ lives including my own,” Katie Hamer, Club Alumni and past Youth of the Year winner, said to the candidates encouragingly. “Good luck, guys, you’ve earned this so now enjoy it.”
Representing the John Will Anderson/Gary Club was Aaron Jones. Jones has been a member of his club for 10 years and has grown and flourished. He did plenty of volunteer work and developed an excellent work ethic through his involvement with the Keystone Leadership Club, Junior Staff and Ten Rites of Passage.
“The skills that I learned helped me to become a young, successful leader not only in the Boys and Girls Club but in school, church, and the community.
Caitlin Dillon represented the Cedar Lake Club. For three years she has been involved in the youth sports programs at her club and is an advocate for healthy living. She’s involved in Keystone Leadership Club, Junior Staff, Smart Girls, and she is a coach and referee for the soccer program.
“My first encounter with the club was through my junior high cheerleading team. We used the club to conduct our weekly practices,” Dillon said. “I’m thankful for what I discovered [at the club]. There was a variety of things going on for kids… And it gave me the opportunity to try new things, which I did. When I’m at the club I feel upbeat, positive, and hopeful about my future.”
Next was David Rozier representing the Lake Station Club. Rozier has faced challenges in his life such as gang violence, drug abuse, and battling with Cerebral Palsy. Through the Boys and Girls Club and the mentors who were there for him, he was able to overcome and deal with the difficulties that he faced and is now looking toward a bright future.
“I’ll never forget the day that I walked into the Lake Station Boys and Girls Club,” Rozier said. “It was like a magical place, something you see on TV. Kids running around for fun and not fear, food, fun staff… It was just so fun.”
Whitley Buck represented the Hammond Club. Buck has been with the club for 10 years, calling it her second home. She’s an active volunteer with her club and in her community. Facing some tough situations in her life left Buck withdrawn and scared, but some caring adults at her club helped to bring her spark back
“As the club opened up their doors to me, I began to open up to others,” Whitley said. “I didn’t go to the club my seventh grade year, and I began to revert back into my shell. However, when I returned to the club, I returned to Whitley. The club helped to heal me.”
And finally Angielic Edwards represented the East Chicago Katherine House Club. Edwards is one of eleven children and grew up in a neighborhood where violence, gangs and drugs were commonplace. She had the constant worry of the safety of her family and their next meals on her mind, but with the help of the Boys and Girls Club, she was able to face many challenges and is all the better for it.
“I didn’t want to be just another kid growing up to work in a fast food restaurant for the rest of my life. Striving for greatness isn’t that easy when you’re the oldest girl and the fourth child of eleven children who all live in the same house,” Edwards said. “When I became a member of the club I joined a lot of programs and they taught me a lot of things… the club is my home away from home. It means a lot to me.”
It was a tough decision for the seven judges chosen for the task. Each club member was an excellent candidate with qualities that made them all stand out, but one stood out among them all. The 2015 Youth of the Year title was given to Whitley Buck.
“I’m proud of myself, but I want to thank everybody who helped me along the way,” Buck said happily. “What a lot of people don’t know about the [Boys and Girls] Club is that it’s more than a place to go, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a place of being. And you don’t just say you’re going to the club, you say it with enthusiasm in your heart because you know you want to be there… The club is my life. If it wasn’t for the club I don’t know where I’d be. It’s just amazing.”
Special recognition was then given to Bertha Payne, an active and integral person who had been with the club for multiple decades. She recently passed away and it she was honored at the event with warm words.
The evening closed with closing remarks by Anne Flannery, President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northwest Indiana.
“Congratulations to our winners this evening,” Flannery said. “We look forward to supporting you, Whitley, in the next step of the program and we’re so proud of all of you.”