After a months-long journey toward a coveted youth award, Aeriel Burtley, a junior at BISC South Loop, is the runner up in the 2016 Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago Youth of the Year competition. Aeriel was awarded the prize after delivering her speech before judges – and an audience of more than 1,000 supporters, civic and business leaders, and members’ families – in March at Navy Pier’s Aon Grand Ballroom.
Eve Houser, 17, a junior at Northside College Prep School, was awarded the top prize.
With the help of auctioneer Keith Jones of Sayre & Jones during the evening’s paddle raise, Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago raised more than a quarter of a million dollars. Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago raised more than $900,000 overall – a record for the Youth of the Year event.
“The Youth of the Year competition really brings out the best and brightest among our Club’s youth members,” said Bart McCartin, Vice Chair of Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago’s Board of Directors, and Youth of the Year event co-chair. “Their sometimes difficult, but uplifting stories of achievement demonstrate their tenacity and will to overcome any obstacles on the path to success. We are proud of our eight finalists, who with the help of Club staff and mentors, are excelling in school, driving change and improvement in their neighborhoods, and becoming role models for other young people.”
Each Youth of the Year finalist is judged on completion of an essay and an interview, as well as their speech, delivered during the dinner event. This year’s finalists hail from Chicago’s Little Village, Logan Square, Bridgeport, Near West Side, East Garfield Park, Uptown and West Lakeview neighborhoods.
Youth are nominated by their local Clubs for exemplary academic achievement and leadership in the following areas: community service; academic success; strong moral character; life goals; and poise and public speaking ability. The winner is chosen by a panel of Chicago civic and business leaders, and proceeds to the state competition held in April.
If ultimately successful, the statewide winner goes on to participate in Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s regional contest. Five regional finalists are then selected for the national competition in Washington, D.C. The five national finalists tour the White House and meet the President.
All Chicago Youth of the Year finalists received a new, fully loaded Microsoft Surface Pro laptop from CDW, a cash prize of $1,000 through the Craig Martin Award, established by Renée and Lester Crown in 2015. The winner of the Youth of the Year competition also received two, round-trip tickets from United Airlines, to further their educational goals.
Aeriel grew up with the Jordan Boys & Girls Club, across the street from Victor Herbert Elementary School, and quickly found an ally in the Club director and coaches who helped identify her athletic abilities and leadership skills. President of Keystone Club and active in volleyball, SMART Girls, and other enrichment programs, she believes the Club is essential not just for her, but for all the kids in her community. “Kids who didn’t know how to tie a tie, or write a resume, or if your parents can’t help you… the Club is always an option,” she says. Aeriel also participates in the floor hockey league, which “kind of broke down a gender barrier for other kids,” and taught her to become more confident and unafraid to try something new – no matter how intimidating. Feeling an education gap when starting freshman year at BISC, Aeriel used the enthusiasm, motivation and determination she learned at the Club to succeed. Now she is the captain of her volleyball team, recently made the Model United Nations team and participates in the school’s choir. She credits the Club for helping with an essay that secured her a spot on a school trip to Tanzania, and for providing mentorship programs that inspired Aeriel to study law in the future.
Well done, Aeriel! All the finalists are exemplary students and young leaders from around the city. Read about them below.
Temaris Dennis, 16, came to the Valentine Boys & Girls Club to shoot hoops when street violence put his neighborhood outdoor courts at risk. He came for the gym, but stayed for the friendly environment, tutoring help, art, and other programs. “It just felt more comfortable than anywhere else,” he says, adding “this gives me opportunities.” It wasn’t long before Temaris was pitching in to help staff and was hired on as an intern. Temaris is soft-spoken. He credits the Club with helping him overcome shyness and making him a “more helpful person” at the Club, where he tutors younger students, and in his Bridgeport community, where he regularly volunteers for such projects as serving meals at a homeless shelter and joining a breast cancer walkathon. A junior at King College Prep, Temaris’ future plans demonstrate his conviction that the Club helps students “be the person they want to be.” He is applying both to study medicine at the University of Iowa and art at the School of the Art Institute. When he finds out where he’s accepted, he’ll choose his next step.
Joanna Burns, 18, doesn’t mince words when talking about her path to the prestigious Chicago Youth of the Year finals. “I was a bad girl,” she says, recounting how she argued with teachers, cut class and was repeatedly suspended in her early high school years. Joanna’s Alcott Boys & Girls Club mentors stuck with her throughout these challenges and inspired her to change her behavior. “They’re your support system if you don’t have one at home,” she says. She now is prepared to graduate on time this June from Truman Middle College, and is focused on making her family proud and serving as a positive role model for nieces and nephews. Club mentors also connected her to a city job fair, where she landed work at her Old Town neighborhood Starbucks. Joanna gets good grades, has been active in Club programs and has a strong interest in community issues. She’s developed proposals to save Chicago Public Schools money on a remodeling project and will travel to New York this spring to present a project on diversity. Her career passion is science. She wants to be a coroner, and hopes to start with a stint in the military before pursuing her goal of becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree. “Not a lot of people want to do that,” she concedes, adding, “But I’m not a lot of people.”
Eve Houser, 17, is a young woman of many passions who credits her academic and athletic success to the mentors during her 10 years at the King Boys & Girls Club. This junior at Northside College Prep School maintains a 3.9 GPA, while breaking the school’s eight-year record in the 4x100 track & field relay, singing in the choir and serving as a junior leader. Eve says the King Club transformed this introvert into an outgoing person who learned about respect and responsibility from staff. Her track & field prowess is now being “followed” by athletics departments at Carthage College and University of Florida, Miami. But Eve’s holding out for a scholarship at University of Southern California, Berkley, where she wants to major in psychology, so she can eventually build her own practice.
Gerardo Abrego, 18, is a senior and business major at Curie High School, aiming for his fourth year of perfect attendance while maintaining a 3.5 GPA. Gerardo is a 12-year member of the Little Village Boys & Girls Club, where he loves athletics and helping younger members. As captain of Curie’s wrestling team, Gerardo possesses a weightlifter’s strength (he placed first in the regional competition this year), and a businessman’s ambition (he’s president of Curie’s Business Professionals of America chapter). His love of sport and business was nurtured at the Club, where Gerardo received the support and inspiration to do his best, while the Club also offered him a safe and productive environment away from the street. With entrepreneurial aspirations to open a personal training business after college, Gerardo is grateful to the Little Village staff who’ve cheered him on his Club and academic journey, and are now helping identify scholarships for his college future.
Marcos Matias, 16, has been a member of the Logan Square Boys & Girls Club for so long, he can hardly remember his first visit. But the impact the Club has made on his life is indelible. Marcos was six years old when a family friend recommended the Club to his mother as a good place for her son's after-school activities. He started attending with his uncle, who is a year older. Marcos, reserved by nature, likes to help people, so he began volunteering to assist the director with various tasks. As he grew older, he took on more responsibility at the Club, which he credits for making him more outgoing, honing his leadership skills, and building lasting relationships with staff and other Club members. He says the Club not only improves the lives of its members, but has made the entire neighborhood stronger and safer. A resident of Portage Park and a sophomore at Rauner College Prep with a GPA over 3.5, Marcos is an avid reader, plays trumpet in the band, participates in track and field and baseball, writes poetry, and enjoys photography. After college, he is not sure whether he will join the armed forces or pursue a civilian profession, but he is certain that the Boys & Girls Club has given him a solid foundation for his future.
Christian Ortega, 17, has grown up in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, where he says the True Value Boys & Girls Club has had a powerful impact on many lives - including his. A very sociable young man, Christian says he was "hooked instantly" the first time he stepped into the Club four years ago. Even though he knew only one Club member, he saw that everyone was "naturally friendly" and that Club staff "genuinely care" about the members. He dove into various programs and moved into a leadership role, helping to plan events, trips and dances. Christian says the skills he has learned at the Club are readily applied to everyday life, motivating him to be more involved at John Spry Community School, where he is a senior, and helping his mother around the house. He was a member of the business club at Spry and now participates in the movie club, a natural tie-in to his goal of becoming an actor. Christian plans to attend college in the Chicago area and study acting. He is grateful to live in Chicago, a city that offers many opportunities - including the True Value Club, which has been such an important part of his life and of so many young people in his community.
Bridget Dankwah, 15, a sophomore in Chicago’s rigorous International Baccalaureate program at Lincoln Park High School, discovered the Pedersen-McCormick Boys & Girls Club at the age of six, when she had been accompanying her mom to work every day. She soon fell in love, not just with the Club’s jazz dance classes and talent shows, but also with the Club’s “leadership programs that instill a sense of respect for yourself and others,” she says. A participant in the Club’s Keystone neighborhood community service group and the PRISM science club, Bridget began playing volleyball in 6th grade and has mentored the science club since 2008. She stresses that the Club, through its programs like SMART Girls and Diplomas to Degrees, has helped her develop self-esteem and nurture her natural tendency to be herself. “I don’t try to be a photocopy and try to stay true to myself.” Bridget carries what she learns at the Club to her school, where she joined the Eco club for recycling and environmental awareness, and most recently joined the poms team. When not planning walkathons and events for her Uptown community or performing scientific dissections in class, she dreams about seeing the world. Drawn to science, Bridget hopes to pursue a career in medicine. She loves the people at the Club, saying she would feel lost without them, and feels strongly that the Club connects her community.