By David Jernigan, President & CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta
At a time when the world seems to be falling apart, when mass shootings are on the rise, when war is taking hold in both Ukraine and the Middle East, and when hatred seems to be on full display, I needed our Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta’s Youth of the Year Celebration to remind me that there is still so much good in this world. At our 2023 Youth of the Year Celebration on Nov. 10, I shared space with people who truly reflect the best of humanity.
Youth of the Year is part of Boys & Girls Clubs’ focus on character and leadership development. The yearlong program recognizes teen Club members who demonstrate exemplary academic achievement, leadership skills, and service to the community. Each year, one outstanding teen is named BGMA’s Youth of the Year at our annual YOY Celebration and serves as our youth spokesperson. In addition to receiving a $10,000 scholarship, Metro Atlanta’s Youth of the Year advances to Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Georgia State Youth of the Year Program. If successful, our Youth of the Year will then advance to the Regional Youth of the Year, participating with other state Youth of the Years across the Southeast Region. And, if successful at the regional level, BGCMA’s Youth of the Year advances to the national level.
This year’s “Masterpiece in the Making” themed YOY program hosted by Emmy-winning journalist Monica Pearson also served as our signature fundraising event, raising more than $1 million for Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta. It featured a dynamic live performance by the BGCMA League of Extradentary Talent, a performance ensemble of current Club members across Metro Atlanta; special appearances from City of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and sportscaster Ernie Johnson; and Falcons Legends Ovie Mughelli and Dewey McClain along with several other community leaders served as super judges. Most importantly, guests had the opportunity to hear inspiring speeches from our top five Youth of the Year finalists. And in the culminating moment, Jonas C. of the Douglas County Boys & Girls Club was named runner up and Jaden T. was named Metro Atlanta’s Youth of the Year–our organization’s most prestigious honor.
“A masterpiece in the making is a perfect phrase to describe who I am. I am constantly growing and improving in all areas of my life,” said Jaden, a 17-year-old high school senior with plans to attend Howard University and study political science. She says attending Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s National Youth Days of Advocacy in Washington, D.C. opened her eyes to endless career paths. “My end goal is to become an attorney and work in the nation’s Capital as a policymaker. I want to positively impact the world by providing support to those who feel unheard and make great changes that will benefit the masses.”
For our 650+ attendees, Youth of the Year may seem like a remarkable moment in time, but it’s so much more than one night of celebration or two months of preparation. It’s a continuous pouring into our young people that makes it all possible. So, when I think about the best of humanity, I think about our Club-based staff who ignite the unlimited potential of our young people every day after school; in some cases, our staff have been pouring into our young people for over a decade. Our dedicated staff show up each day, make many personal sacrifices to be at the Club well past typical working hours, and come back again and again despite not always knowing if they’re making an impact. Our Club-based staff members are consistent, and they love deeply. They are the best of humanity.
When I think about the best of humanity, I also I think about our Support Center team members who spend many sleepless nights thinking through the details that ensure our teens are appropriately celebrated—from the transportation and check-in logistics to the months of sponsorship solicitations. The integration of the arts throughout the program was exceptional and reinforced the powerful theme that we all so deeply believe in – that our kids are truly masterpieces in the making. Our support center team commits themselves to excellence because they believe in our mission so passionately. Indeed, they are the best of humanity.
When I think about the best of humanity, I think about our volunteer leaders who give so generously of their time, talent, and treasure to ensure that our kids and teens have the resources they need to thrive in life. They advocate within their companies and personal connections to ensure that sponsorships are secured and tables are filled. Our board of trustees, board of directors, and county boards truly represent the best of humanity.
When I think about the best of humanity, I think about community leaders and generous donors who gave up their Friday night and fought traffic and lots of obstacles to celebrate 18 of Metro Atlanta’s most inspiring teens. Many of them have kids of their own and don’t need to make personal sacrifices for other people’s kids, but they do. They listened attentively, they showered our teens with well-deserved praise, and they dug deep to help us raise a significant amount of money. Indeed, our community supporters represent the best of humanity.
Finally, when I think about the best of humanity, I think about our kids and teens. These young people have countless distractions and influences in their communities that could be pulling them far off the path of having their unlimited potential ignited, but they show up to the Club consistently. Their tenacity and courage to commit to the Youth of the Year program alone is inspiring, but beyond that we know that each of them has a story of triumph. They push through the personal challenges and with the support of their families, they embrace an outlook on life that gives me so much hope for our future. Indeed, our kids and teens represent the very best of humanity.
As I reflect on all that I experienced at our 2023 Youth of the Year Celebration, I realize that I needed Youth of the Year to reground me in what is right about humanity. For that I am eternally grateful to experience an evening that truly inspires me to be the best human that I can be while on this earth.
To learn more about Youth of the Year or ways you can support other Boys & Girls of Metro Atlanta programs & initiatives, please visit www.BGCMA.org.