2019 National Military Youth of the Year VIP Event at the Pentagon

Celebrating the accomplishments of six phenomenal military youth finalists who will go on to compete for the title of the 2019 National Military Youth of the Year at the National Press Club on 15 August 2019, hosted by Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA).

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I want to welcome you all to the Pentagon Conference Center. I have to say this is one of my favorite days of the year. The stories that you’ll hear in just a few minutes from these students will blow you away. They are our future, and they will give you such a sense of hope for what is to come. This is my second year welcoming these youth to the Pentagon, and I can say it’s both a joy and a privilege. They embody our hopes for the future. And I want the youth to look around the room. There’s some pretty high-ranking officials here in this room, and they’re here to honor you and to hear your stories. And with that, I’d also like to have a special welcome for our distinguished military leaders. I’d also like to recognize the families that have supported these students. Without your support, they would not be here. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America’s National Military Youth of the Year recognition is one of the highest honors that a military youth can achieve. The program celebrates military youth have demonstrated exceptional character, leadership, and accomplishments. Each year our finalists have several characteristics in common. As you’ll hear, they have a great work ethic, they are purposeful, they’re resilient, determined, persistent, empathetic, and passionate about making a difference. Traits that embody hundreds of thousands of our current and former military youth around the world. Each of them have seen needs in their communities and stepped forward to serve. Doesn’t that sound familiar? There is no doubt that service runs deep in every one of the families represented here, as well. I know that military families face challenges, and build resilience by meeting those challenges and overcoming those challenges. PCS moves and deployments can be difficult for military children, but they also present them with wonderful opportunities to learn and grow as they experience new schools, cultures, friends, and languages, and perspectives from around the world. The Military Youth of the Year program also provides opportunities to learn more about military kids, much like the department’s Know Your Mil initiative. The public doesn’t always understand the challenges that military kids will face until someone shares their story. You’ll hear more about these stories, but I know all of them have dealt with balancing frequent school changes, being the new kid, maintaining old connections, and building new connections, learning their new communities, and missing deployed family members, just to name a few. And now I have the pleasure of introducing you to the finalists in this program. And because they have accomplished so much, I think it’s appropriate that we don’t hold our applause. With each one, I would absolutely recommend stepping up. So the first one is Lauro Melendez. (audience applauding) And Lauro represents the Midwest, and is from US Army Garrison Fort Knox, Kentucky. Our next finalist is Arianna Foster. (audience applauding) Arianna’s representing the Southwest from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Our next finalist is Christian Ashford. (audience applauding) And Christian represents the Pacific region from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington. Our next finalist is Dasia Brandy. (audience applauding) And Dasia represents the Southwest region from the Naval Support Activity in Norfolk. And last but not least, we have Desha Jenkins. (audience applauding) She is representing the Northeast region from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. And I have to correct myself. Of course, not least. For our overseas regionals, we have Isabella Mollison. Isabella? (audience applauding) And she’s here from Yokota Air Base in Japan. Today we are recognizing each of you for your service to your installation’s youth program and military community, your academic performance, and your contributions to your family. The six of you represent military youth programs across the country, and across the world. We’re very proud of all of you for your efforts. The six of you combined have volunteered a total of 2,179 hours this year alone. (audience applauding) I’ve heard this is a formidable process, but today’s the culmination of all your hard work. I know that you’ve worked hard and learned so much in your experience from being in a military family. I’m so proud of each of you for what you have done, no matter who is chosen tomorrow night. I look forward to hearing about your continued successes as you journey on through school into adulthood. And before I close, I want to recognize and thank our trusted partner, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. They’ve been our partner for 28 years. (audience applauding) You’ve provided enhanced programs and services for thousands of youth of military, on US installations, and communities around the world. You’ve secured thousand of dollars in scholarships, grants, and other resources for our military youth over the years. We are proud to say that the partnership continues to grow and offers a consistent, safe place for our youth to connect. Our 2018 Military Youth of the Year, Miss Ryan Walker, demonstrates resilience of military youth. She has faced the challenges of the military life and thrived by finding connection in her military-connected Boys and Girls Clubs. Miss Walker found her voice through serving in her community. She and our Military Youth of the Year finalists are helping to strengthen America’s connection to our nation and members of their family. Let’s all take a lesson from these teen leaders, and take another look around at your own community. Find the gaps in service, look for people in need, and be there as helpers in your community one person at a time. And now it is my pleasure to welcome our mistress of ceremonies for today, the 2018 Boys and Girls Club of America Military Youth of the Year, Miss Ryan Walker. (audience applauding)

Hello everyone. I’m Ryan. Um, hello. I’m Ryan, and it has been my honor serving as the 2018 National Military Youth of the Year for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Every year four million kids and teens just like me, and just like all of us finalists, walk into a local Boys and Girls Club, or BGCA-affiliated youth center. Inside we’re met by caring staff and advisors, we stretch our imagination, we strengthen our academic skills, and we lead our peers in community service. We learn to cope with the obstacles we face at school, at home, and on the streets. And for military kids like me, who were born and raised into a military family, or joined one later on, the youth center environment can be life-changing. Being a military kid isn’t easy. For us, change is constant. But no matter where we go, either in a civilian community or on an installation around the world, door to door, these facilities are welcoming to us. There are 494 BGCA-affiliated youth centers on US military installations worldwide. Through that door we find lifelong friends, adult mentors, and programs like Youth of the Year that lead us to unbelievable opportunities. So on behalf of the more than 500,000 military youth served through BGCA-affiliated youth centers, we thank you. It is now my pleasure to introduce Miss Misty Marston, national vice president of field operations for Boys and Girls Clubs of America. (audience applauding)

Thank you, Ryan. I want to personally thank you for your service this past year, and I want to personally thank everyone in the room for being here today. I am extremely proud to serve at Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and extremely proud of this military partnership which has spanned a number of years, as was mentioned earlier. Later in the program, you’ll get to hear from our six Military Youth of the Year candidates. They’re amazing young people, and they will share with you how their youth program changed and impacted their life, helping them to reach their full potential. But most importantly, they will share with you their personal stories and experiences as military-connected youth. As many of you may know, six years ago we convened the Military Great Think. The Great Think featured panel discussions and roundtable discussions in which participants proposed recommendations for how we could better serve our military families. Some of these recommendations included and helped us understand that to effectively serve military youth, we must first account for the needs and challenges of the entire military family. We also learned that military-connected programs and initiatives must begin ahead of deployment and carry through through the reintegration process, focusing on strengthening communications and relationships among family members. Additionally, we learned that improving resiliency among military children and their family members is essential for mission readiness. We learned that we must expand our learnings related to science, technology, engineering, and math, making sure that we’re leveraging the experience of our veterans and our military spouses. And lastly, we learned that public and private entities must establish collaborative partnerships to ensure that we can be successful in all the initiatives listed above. Since The Great Think, we’ve had the opportunity to address several of these challenges or opportunities, and I want to share some of those successes with you. Through partners such as Raytheon, we’ve provided the opportunity for 22 clubs and youth centers to open STEM centers of innovation, reaching about 4,000 military-connected youth. Also, through the Floor Corporation, 15,000 military-connected teens have benefited from resiliency and reintegration training. While we know there’s still a lot of work to do in this regard, we’re really proud of our accomplishments thus far, and we want to make sure that we’re providing the resources and opportunities to really support this enduring partnership. It is now my honor to introduce two of our Military Youth of the Year candidates. The Southeast Military Youth of the Year from NSA Norfolk Naval Shipyard program in Virginia, Dasia Bandy, and our Southwest Military Youth of the Year, from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Arianna Foster. Thank you. (audience applauding)

Good morning.

[Audience] Good morning.

R-E-V-O-L-U-T-I-O-N. Hidden inside the word revolution is love written backwards. For any solution, evolution, or revolution, whether small or large, you need love. Not just any old love, self-love. When you attain self-love, you have the will power for good self-esteem, self-discipline, self-efficiency. All things that equal a successful you. You have the capability of changing the most important thing: you. You choose to leave, to stand up, to walk out, to speak up. You are the variable that can make the difference in any equation. My vision for America’s youth is a society where the youth understand the importance of self-love, which is the central issue to our problems facing my peers. There was a situation in which a racial slur was hurled at me. I felt belittled, mistreated, disrespected, and most of all, broken. I fed into the negativity, and almost forgot what my self-worth was. So I turned to the most consistent aspect of my life, my youth center. My center taught me how a true leader creates an environment for leaders to emerge. But how could I be that leader if I forgot who I was? It was extremely difficult for me to find myself since my father served in the US Navy. His service forced us to be separated at times I need him most. My father sacrificed promotions and other opportunities so we didn’t have to relocate often like most military families. Many assume that all military youth have the same experience and that there’s only one military youth lifestyle. I’m here today to end that myth, and share my unique military experience. Unlike most, relocations was a blessing and a curse, in a sense. Many of my friends are military youth, and got deployed often. Therefore, building and maintaining friendships was a challenge for me because it was difficult for me to attach to others. But my center helped me develop leadership skills that made friendships easier to create that eventually led to successful leadership skills and networking skills that opened the doors for me to become the VP of my Keystone Club, the VP of the Mid-Atlantic Region of Jack and Jill of America, Incorporated, and the DECA district president. The countless opportunities and skills that my center provided me even assisted me in loving myself and embracing my heritage. Yaa Asantewaa is the fierce female Ghanaian warrior that fought against British colonism because she understood that protecting her heritage was more important than death. I wasn’t named after her just because. There’s substance, there’s meaning, there’s absolutely something behind it. We both share dedication, diligence, and optimism, all characteristics that I now embrace and want to use to help better the youth of America. After high school, I plan on attending UNC Chapel Hill with a double major in biology, computer science, and a minor in business management. I, Dasia Danaya Asantua Bandy, will continue to spread awareness for self-love within my community to better the youth of America so they, too, can become their own fierce warriors. Thank you. (audience applauding)

When you look at me what do you see? When I speak what do you hear? Do you see a girl who has been through years of abuse from her foster family? Or do you see a girl who is courageous, and has overcome many obstacles? Moving from foster home to foster home, I faced hardships that no child should ever have to go through. In one home, I witnessed drug use, was physically and sexually abused, and could often be seen digging through random trash cans looking for food. I suffered from feelings of loneliness, anger, and depression. But being adopted was something that I never thought would happen to a girl like me. And yet, on September 3rd, 2010, I was finally adopted by my forever military family. When I first started to attend my club, I had no idea of the impact it would make on my life. Being adopted is, and will always be a blessing to me, but my club has changed my life in ways that kids like me only see on TV, or in the movies. When I first started to attend my club, I wasn’t open to anything they had to offer. I was lost, scared, and had given up on everything and everyone. Now why should I believe this time would be different? But after a couple of days, I started to experience something I’ve never felt before. It was a place full of love, hope, and opportunities. Now if you’d told the little girl crying herself to sleep at night that one day her struggles will lead her to not only one family, but two, she wouldn’t have believed it. There are countless reasons why I participate in my club. But the three most important reasons are the way I feel accepted, the staff’s involvement in my life, and the lifelong friendships I’ve made. One particular staff member who stands out the most is Mr. KJ. He shares my love for basketball, attends my track meets, cheers the loudest, and encourages me to lead a life of fitness beginning with Triple Play. My club has helped me become the young lady that I am today by changing how I see people, how I present myself, and how I can help others. The club is where I learned that I would finally be okay. The No Bully Club taught me to see every person’s story without judgment, and that every person deserves the same respect and encouragement. With the leadership skills I have gained in Keystone, it has given me the opportunity to serve my community which gives me an amazing feeling in my heart. Learning to plan and implement community and base-wide events has helped me develop my vision for America’s youth. With the skills I’ve gained, I now know I can take on the foster care system and make a difference so that no other kid has to go through what I did. My experience at my club has helped me know what family means, and what having a home away from home truly feels like. The love and support that I have received from my club, whether I wanted it or not, has given me the courage to create my own destiny, and not the one that’s been given to me. So today I’m brave, resilient, and transformed. Thank you. (audience applauding)

Thank you, Miss Misty Marston, Dasia, and Arianna. This year as the National Military Youth of the Year has been incredibly rewarding, and I am beyond thankful for this opportunity that I was given to serve and advocate for over 400,000 military youth worldwide. As the National Military Youth of the Year I was given endless platforms to share my voice, most notably through speaking at DoDEA meetings, engaging with senators, and the US president, and through the mentorships I’ve formed with future leaders. And it is because of my passion for advocacy that I’ve decided to attend NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study where I will be hand-designing a major centered around photography and social justice. (audience applauding) It is now my honor to introduce two more Military Youth of the Year candidates. The Overseas Military Youth of the Year from Yokota Air Base Youth Program in Japan Isabella Mollison, and the Northeast Military Youth of the Year from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Desha Jenkins. (audience applauding)

My name is Isabella Mollison. Last year I sat before a panel of judges, much like this, in a youth of the year competition much like this to talk about me. I stood there talking about my experiences and my hardships, and how it should lead to my earning of a greater platform to further talk about me. So with this competition, I lost. But when I lost, I went back to Yokota Air Base in Japan, I went back to my teen center, my Keystone Club, and I learned. I learned that it’s not about me. It’s not about this title of Youth of the Year, but it’s about us. It’s about the change that we can make as a unified force. Throughout my life, I’ve seen and experienced division. I’ve seen the deep chasms of hate that surge through people who are afraid of diversity. In fact, you’ve seen it too. It’s projected in the media every single day. It’s another story of black versus blue. It’s another cover on a mosque tragedy. It’s another missing poster for a transgender child, or it’s another school community left in our thoughts and prayers. For us, this news runs in and out of our lives within five minutes, but for others they are life-lasting devastations because somebody was afraid. However, it doesn’t have to be like this, because with policy changes we can make a difference. This last presidential election cycle has proven to be one of the most polarizing elections in US history. And although there have been a lot of faults with this, there’s also been a lot of promising realizations. Because the newest generation, our generation, has proven to be one of the most politically-active groups of emerging voters ever that this country has seen, and that’s a huge deal, because that means through unlimited internet access, through social platforms, through instant media, we have a closer connection to the congressmen and women representing us at the local, state, and national level. That means that our dreams of harmony and inclusivity do not have to remain just such, because once we continue practicing and improving upon the active participation of the voting population, our voices will be heard, and our changes will be made. Last year, I sat before a panel of judges and asked to become a voice for the voiceless. This year I want to inspire all of us to use our voices. In the three clubs, in the three youth centers I’ve been a part of, the BGCA, and military youth programs has taught me that with diversity, more perspectives, more experiences, more ideas are included in the collective effort towards prosperity. So this year, as your next Military Youth of the Year, I want to inspire all of us to use our voices, not necessarily in unison, but in harmony as we work towards building a clean, fair, and more beautiful future. Because this is the future that we all deserve. And we can build this future together, but is must be together. Thank you. (audience applauding) (clearing throat)

Around here we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors, and doing new things. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. This Walt Disney quote explains my journey through the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which will carry me for a lifetime. Good morning.

[Audience] Good morning.

My name is Desha Jenkins, Northeast Military Regional Youth of the Year. I am honored to stand before you all as the face of the Boys and Girls Club brand, representing the critical impact the club has on developing character of young people. For 10 years it’s truly been a blessing to being a part of this organization. I have learned that everybody has a voice that needs to be heard. I stamp my brand with honor. My heart fuels my passion to help others to see and reach their full capability. The Boys and Girls Club of America mission statement states: to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens. As president of the Keystone Club leader’s committee, understanding this mission statement empowers me to push others to pass what they imagine, to affirm that their voice is heard. The club has done so much for me, from meeting famous people, to opportunities for media exposure. I gain confidence that I, too, can be in that spotlight. In fact, on May 23rd, my spotlight shined by earning my high school diploma and my associate degree. In the fall, I’ll be a college junior majoring in psychology. The club helped me not only imagine, but own how impactful my voice can be. My vision for America’s youth: stand up what you believe in. This all starts with you. You can only speak your truth. We all have a voice that needs to be heard and take action in society. We need to stop waiting and saying maybe later and start saying it is my time. This is my voice. From school shootings, to police brutality, to hate crimes, the only way to calm these storms is with our voice. We will be the change this world needs. We’ll open our hearts and minds to begin the important communication to build comfort and understanding between all humans. 18 years of military life hasn’t always been sunshine and butterflies. I spent more than half my life without my father. It hurt hearing friends talking bad about their father while I struggled to have mine by my side. This situation exposed me to the diverse dynamics that any individual can go through. Moving from place to place, house to house. I watched my mother fall ill to post-traumatic stress disorder. It hurt seeing the woman I love unconditionally go through this. I wanted to give up. The club wouldn’t let me. They reassured me that my mother wants me to succeed, which I did by doing my best. This tragedy has shaped my future and passion to help others with disorders. Life of military youth is fast-paced, stressful, and often scary, but my life has also been eye-opening, liberating, and unpredictable. I experienced new cultures, traveled to beautiful places around the world, and felt the warmth from my many communities. The Boys and Girls Club of America has created the voice you hear today. Can you hear me now? I am Desha Jenkins, and my voice will be heard! Thank you. (audience applauding)

I’m not that loud, but… (audience laughing) Thank you, again to Isabella and to Desha. As military youth, we are extremely proud of the parents that serve our countries. We are also extremely grateful to each and every one of you in this room. Your support is highly appreciated. Many of you work behind the scenes to make sure that our parents who serve are more than prepared to perform their duties. Thank you. And it is now my pleasure to introduce Miss Tara McFarland, the national vice president of Military and Outreach Services for Boys and Girls Clubs of America. (audience applauding)

So I’ve asked Ryan to stay here. I just want to pause for a moment and thank her for serving with excellence. During her year of National Military Youth of the Year, she has absolutely raised the platform, and really expanded our opportunities in spaces that we’ve never been before. So if we can, you’ve been seated for a while, can we stand and give her a standing ovation? (audience applauding) Thank you, Ryan. Thank you. Thank you, Ryan. So we’ve had the opportunity to hear from a few of our remarkable Youth of the Year candidates. Since 1947, Youth of the Year has been Boys and Girls Club’s premier recognition program honoring extraordinary young people like you’ve seen today, for their achievements in leadership, service, academics, and health and wellness. Each year one exceptional club member is selected to be the National Military Youth of the Year. But I wanna go off-script for a moment. And I’ve said this to them all week. We will announce one National Military Youth of the Year, but I want to say to each of our six candidates, you all, we will call on you to speak. You’ve heard them. We will actually make sure that we continue to provide opportunities because all of your voices need to be heard. Let’s give them another hand. (audience applauding) So at each level, just a little bit about what it took to get here. At each level, these candidates received scholarships thanks to our support from Disney and Toyota. At the regional level each of them received $10,000 scholarships renewable for up to four years. So that’s $40,000 that they’ve received in scholarships already to use for school. They also, at the state level, received a $5,000 scholarship that they can actually use for their academic endeavors. Tomorrow, when we name the National Military Youth of the Year, they will receive another $20,000 scholarship that they can use for their academic endeavors totalling $65,000 that they can actually use for school. So while there are many programs that serve military families, we need to ensure that those programs encourage positive outcomes like those found in our BGCA-affiliated youth centers on our installations around the world. BGCA youth centers provide stability, academic support, and committed adult mentors. They offer military children access to peer groups who have an intimate understanding of military life. And through programs like Youth of the Year, BGCA celebrates their achievements of our military-connected families, shining a light on their resiliency in the face of great challenges and opportunities. So before I introduce another remarkable Youth of the Year candidate, I’d like to thank a few individuals who helped to make this event, and also many of our events, successful. Karen Morgan. (audience applauding) Judy Patrick (audience applauding) Larry Dixson. (audience applauding) Diana Ganote. (audience applauding) David Brittain. (audience applauding) Ejo Masuje. (audience applauding) Matt Persiac. (audience applauding) And Brent, don’t get nervous. I always make him come up and say something, but I won’t this time. Brent Edwards. (audience applauding) And finally, a few of our unsung heroes. I’d like to thank our BGCA staff who are here behind the scenes making everything possible, those in the back table. (audience applauding) Thank you. Now let me get out of the way. Please join me in welcoming our two final Military Youth of the Year candidates, the Midwest Military Youth of the Year, Lauro Melendez from USAG Fort Knox Child and Youth Services located in Kentucky, and the Pacific Military Youth of the Year from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, Christian Ashford. (audience applauding)

My story begins in the dark interior of a car. I grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and my family was the poorest of the poor. My mom did not have an active role in my life, and for almost a year I lived in a car with my brother and sister. I had to wonder when I would have my next meal. Food was a blessing, and an opportunity to live another day. I was passed from family member to family member until my dad found out how I was living and came to get me. My dad is a soldier, and back then, a single parent. So even though my life was much better than it was in Puerto Rico, it was still difficult. But where I started would not be where I finished. The military and the Boys and Girls Club-affiliated youth centers taught me that. My club is like the stars, shining through that car window when I was six years old. It helped me see in dark times and made me feel safe when I was scared. My youth center constantly gave me opportunities to better myself through programs such as Keystone and Youth Council, where I volunteered for 1,272 hours, and it is where I learned how to make an impact in my community, and be a better leader and role model to my peers. That is why I will attend the University of Central Florida to major in journalism and minor in criminology. Because others helped me find my voice, and I will use it as an ambassador for change in our world. My youth center was a place I’d never seen before. A place where everyone got along. A place where you could be yourself. And most importantly, a place where you could feel safe and accepted. It is where I went when I got the news about my brother’s death this past summer. My world was destroyed, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. My brother was killed in a drive-by shooting. You can say that he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, but I was angry because I thought my brother could have done something, and maybe he could have. So my vision for America’s youth is to lower the rates of unnecessary deaths by advocating for classes in smart moves, self-defense, and situational awareness. Because it is my hope to never see another youth go through what I experienced. I started life as a young boy staring at the stars through that car window, wishing and hoping for a new beginning. The Boys and Girls Club turned that wish for a new beginning into a reality. I want to show everyone that you can come from rough beginnings and graduate high school with all A’s and a 3.7 GPA. You can go from being homeless and living in a car, to becoming an individual with purpose, passion, and ambition. You could be a star, because in case you haven’t noticed, great futures really do start here. Thank you. (audience applauding)

To walk a mile in my shoes reveals a lot for travels, experiences, and personal challenges that have molded me into the person I am today. Who am I, and where am I from? I’m from the dirt roads of Mississippi, the ranches of Texas, the monuments of Virginia, and the rainy days of Washington. I’m from yes, sir, and no, ma’am. I’m from hard work and determination. That’s where I’m from. Greetings, my name is Christian Ashford representing Hillside Youth Center, affiliated Boys and Girls Club, and the Pacific region. Behind every successful young person is a (mumbles) support system. My mother is my heart, and my father is my hero. Together, they provide the stability we needed to be resilient as my father served our nation. When I became a teenager, he deployed overseas, and to my dismay, I realized that I really didn’t know my dad, my hero. Sadly, he struggled to related to me, and I struggled to trust him. I kept everything in my life a secret from him, and it broke his heart. I’m sorry, Dad. While my family worked to overcome this challenge, I found refuge at the Hillside Youth Center. I was shy and nervous at first until I met Mr. Dejuan. He was knowledgeable, welcoming, and actually pretty cool for a grown-up. (audience laughing) Hillside inspired me to open up to my father about important issues, and to serve my community. For me, the icing on the cake was being able to mentor middle school boys by leading Passport to Manhood. I was so excited when I realized that the middle schoolers actually listened to me. I finally found my voice. The guidance I received at Hillside prepared me to serve as Pacific Region’s Military Youth of the Year, and helped my dad and I find our way. I love you, Dad. As Pacific Region Military Youth of the Year, I led the fight against bullying by promoting the Judgment-Free Generation initiative. My team has created and donate over 1,000 Bully Proof Survival Kits to help middle school students start the school year. We also received a $2,000 grant to host events to create a bully-free atmosphere in my Teen Zone. And finally, we partnered with the Keystone leaders to incorporate the bully reporting boxes in military youth centers throughout the Pacific region. Military life has many challenges. Hillside developed the leader in me to serve my community. If chosen to be the next National Military Youth of the Year, I will expand my platform by implementing Bully Proof displays in military-affiliated Boys and Girls Clubs throughout the nation. Military life has developed me into a person I know I am today. So I want to say thank you to Hillside, thank you to my advisor, thank you to everyone who believed in me. Thank you. (audience applauding)

Great job, Lauro and Christian. It was great to hear from you. I would now like to invite back to the stage all of our Military Youth of the Year candidates. Before we close out today’s program, there are many individuals responsible for our success, most notably, our parents. Collectively, we all thank our parents for their service and their support. We also stand here in honor of those youth professionals who work so hard each day to ensure that we have great experiences when we enter one of the many facilities that are available to us. A few of those youth care professionals are, in fact, here today. And they serve as the advisors to the youth present today. So would each of you like to say a little thank you to your advisor?

Good morning again. I have a blended advisor. My advisor, Miss Daira is recovering from brain surgery, so I would like to say thank you to her in addition to Miss Renee, my advisor right here in the room, and Mr. Joshua, and Mr. Kenny. I’ve been surrounded by more than one person’s support. It has to come from a team, and a family, and I appreciate you so much. You’re like a mom to me. You rocked my last celebration, and I appreciate you. (all applauding)

Go like this. Okay, if Miss Mindy would stand up, please. She is with the Tinker Air Force Base. I’d like to say thank you to my Air Force base, and to Miss Mindy. They got me at the age of seven, and they have molded me into the person I am today. They believed in me when I had no other support. They gave me all, and now it’s kind of like a second family to where I’m there until nine o’clock at night, sitting with her in her office, just talking about life. So a special thank you to my club. They believed in me, they gave me everything, especially Mr. KJ. He came to my basketball games, to my swim meets, he came to everything I had when my parents weren’t available. I was able to text someone and be like, “Hey, can you come support me at this?” And they were there. So thank you, you guys. (all applauding)

So I would like to say thank you to Miss Christina Reed, if you can stand up. So Miss Christina, she actually, I had no idea that there was a Youth of the Year program because we didn’t have a Teen Center for two years at Yokota Air Base. And so I’m just hanging at the youth center with all the little kids, and I’m like oh, (mumbles) because I had just moved there, and she’s like, “Hey, I’ve seen all the amazing things “that you’ve been doing back in Alaska, “and I was wondering if you want to join the Keystone Club.” And then I was a part of the Keystone Club for a really long time, and then she’s like, “Hey, we have a Youth of the Year program, “and I think that you’d be a great candidate.” And so that was last year. Actually, last year Ryan over here, so but you know, she’s a national, so it’s like the best person to give it to, right? And so when that happened I was, I was a mess. I was crying, and no, no, it was like on me. She picked me back up, she brushed me off, and she’s like, “This doesn’t define you. “You’re going to grow from this, “you’re going to become a better person from this,” and here I am standing here today. So, thank you, Miss Christina, for teaching me how to lead with compassion, and love, and most of all, patience, ’cause it took a lot for me to get here. So thank you, Miss Christina. (all applauding)

Miss Matrice, if you could stand please. So Miss Matrice, you’ve been with me since sixth grade when I came back to Maryland. At the time, we weren’t as close as we are now, and with time, it actually took time and effort for us to actually come together. Over this time period you basically became part of the family. You’re like my grandmother, honestly. You’re just like my grandmother. Especially with this past year, you’ve helped me through a lot of difficulties going through senior year dealing with schoolwork, dealing with teen issues that I go through at school. You’ve just been there for me throughout everything, and I really appreciate you for that. Thank you. (all applauding)

Hi, hi. Tessa. (all laughing) You know, get up. I just want to thank you, because when I joined the club in sixth grade, I told you that, oh my God, I’m gonna cry, oh my God. Okay. I told you that I wanted to redefine, determine what it meant to be a Youth of the Year. And I felt like when you wanted me to start the program my freshman year, you saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and I felt like that’s what the Youth of the Year program has taught me, that there’s people out there willing to listen to my story, because I never believed in myself. I always thought that I was gonna be a homeless boy from Puerto Rico who lived in a car, and didn’t make anything out of his life. When my mom abandoned me, I felt like I lost everything, and you became my second mom, and you were there for me when I needed you the most. When my brother passed away, you were there, and, sorry! (all laughing) You were there for me, and I just want to thank you for everything because when I told you that my grandma passed away a couple days ago, you told me to stay strong because I wanted to be the change that I wanted to see in the world, and you have given me all the opportunities I needed, and I just want to thank you because I went from having a 2.0 GPA to graduating high school with all A’s, and I feel like nothing would have been done without you. So thank you. (all applauding)

Could Miss Charissa Lizama please stand up? (audience chattering) Miss Charissa, you’re my heart. You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, picked me back up when I was down. You’re like a second mom to me, someone I can go to when I was in trouble, someone that I could talk to when I needed a ear to listen. I want to thank you for everything. For pushing me to making me a better person, putting me into roles I never imagined to see today. And this really wouldn’t have all worked out, I couldn’t do this by myself. This would have never worked out without you in my life. So I want to thank you for accepting me into your life, and your home, too. I love you. (all applauding)

Wow, I’ve never seen people in uniform cry. This is a first. (all laughing) I am so proud of each and every one of you, and I congratulate you on your pursuit of excellence. Aww. (audience applauding) Each of you provides evidence of the great work and the programs provided to you by our youth centers around the world. So thank you, everyone, for your attendance, and please join us for the reception. This concludes the formal part of today’s program, but please join us for lunch.

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