On Thursday evening, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana celebrated the achievements of seven outstanding young Club members at its annual Youth of the Year Ceremony – the organization’s signature event and competition.
Each teen was chosen to represent the best of their Club as a leader, communicator, and student. They compete against each other in an extensive contest, where their public speaking skills, writing abilities, academic success, and community contributions are all weighed by a panel of local community leaders. Every nominee received a $1,250 scholarship, while the winner and runner-up received $5,000 and $2,500 scholarships respectively. This year, the panel named Surilynn “Suri” Desch of the Duneland Club as the winner, and Alaisha Brown of the Hammond Club as runner-up.
“I was runner-up last time, I came close,” Desch said. “I told myself, I can do it this year – all you’ve got to do is push to your goals.”
Desch, 15, joined her Club six years ago and it quickly became a core part of her daily life – a place to play, and a place to grow.
“The Club means a second home,” she said. “It’s a safe place where I can relax and be me. I don’t have to worry about the things outside of the Club.”
She talked through some of the challenges that her Club offered a haven from, such as growing up with dyslexia which impacted her ability to read and spell, and exostosis, a disease that targets her physical growth and has led to eight different surgeries. Yet one of the greatest, she said, came from within her family.
“One of the hardest things I have to face is my dad,” she said. “When I was five, my dad got in a really, really bad fight with my mom. I still see him from time to time, to stay connected with my family. It’s challenging to see him. I always wanted my father to change and love me for me, but deep down inside, I know he can’t. Thankfully, I have a wonderful family on my mom’s side and they support me in everything I do.”
At the Duneland Club, she found mentors and peers who shared her values and supported her through life’s challenges.
“While I support others, the Club supports me,” she said. “It gives me the freedom to be the person I am today. The staff is another family to me, they give me advice when I need it or just let me vent. The kids have helped me get out of my shell, talk more, and be social.”
Brown echoed Desch’s thoughts, calling the Hammond Club her second home.
“The staff members are like my parents, and the kids are like siblings,” she said. “To me, the Club is a place where I’m free to be me. A safe space, where I can express myself in so many ways without fearing judgment. I wish to provide the understanding, love, and trust that I’ve always received at the Club.”
The process of sharing her struggles on a public stage was not easy for Desch, she said, but she hopes to serve as a role model through doing so.
“It’s okay to share your stories, it’s okay to show people that you are weak,” she said. “In the end, you need to come up and be stronger than you have ever been before.”
With her win on Thursday, Desch earned the right to compete at the event’s next stage – Indiana Youth of the Year. If she wins there, she would move on to Midwest Youth of the Year and then finally, National Youth of the Year.
She would be following in the footsteps of Marcus Steele, an alumni of the John Will Anderson Gary Boys & Girls Club, who made it all the way to the national finals. Steele attended Thursday’s event to show his support and stressed just how much the honor means not only to the winner – but their surrounding community.
“It had a bigger impact on the community than I think it had on myself,” he said. “I didn’t really realize that until afterwards, but you don’t see a lot of kids from Gary doing something big like that. It was something to bring back and show the kids and the Club, the kids in the community – if I can do it, anybody in this community is capable of doing the same thing.”
At the end of the evening, each nominee received a goodie bag filled with gifts, including an additional $1,000 scholarship to Calumet College of St. Joseph.
To learn more about Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana, visit bgcgreaternwi.org.