These teens are changing our world.
They are speaking up about depression and gun violence and anxiety. They are volunteering, dreaming of becoming surgeons and lawyers, and setting their sights on tackling abuse in the foster care system.
They are saying: this is my community; I believe in it; I want to lift it up. I want all of us to lift it up.
The six teenagers set to be honored at the Boys & Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore’s Youth of the Year event at the Delta Hotels by Marriott in downtown Muskegon this Tuesday, Nov. 5 are Brianna S., Kaylie O., Jaiden W., Asia H., Darice T., and Amia L. (The Boys & Girls Club does not release the full names of the students.) The students are from the cities of Muskegon and Muskegon Heights.
Selected among hundreds of individuals involved with the Boys & Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore, the Youth of the Year nominees are doing everything from tackling gun violence and mental health to volunteering with AmeriCorps and much more.
“As with every group of Youth of the Year finalists, we are so proud of these young women and men who represent our clubs and communities so honorably,” Dakota Crow, President and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore, said in a press release. “Having so many incredible youth and teens to celebrate whose club experience has empowered them to find their voice and achieve success is what the event on November 5th is all about. Sharing that with the greater community makes for a memorable evening for all involved.”
The three finalists—Brianna, of Muskegon Covenant Academy; Kaylie, of Muskegon High School; and Jaiden, of Muskegon Heights Academy—will vie for the Youth of the Year title and a $2,500 scholarship at next week’s Youth of the Year competition, a national contest that provides winning students a series of financial awards for advanced studies and, ultimately, lands one teenager a $100,000 college scholarship. The two runners-up for the Boys & Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore will each receive a $500 scholarship.
The event too will honor seven Jr. Youth of the Year nominees, who are between the ages of six and 12: Suntario H., Haliah C., Amaria A., Leihlauni H., Hanna H., Jerahmi B., and Aligha O.
As part of the students’ work preparing for the Youth of the Year event, the teens wrote essays describing their aspirations—for both themselves and their community, the role the Boys & Girls Club has played in their lives, and more. Simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring, the writings are powerful explorations of the ways in which our world fails our children—and how our youth are tending to the wounds others have left for them.
Kaylie, for example, wrote that she wants to help “address two major issues facing myself and my friends today: gun violence and mental health.”
“It seems like every other day we are hearing about someone who has been shot, and it seems like gun violence in our community has become somewhat normalized,” Kaylie wrote. “I am here to tell you it is not normal, and it is not okay.”
Darice, a student at Muskegon Heights Academy, wrote the “gun violence in Muskegon has hit home for me in the last couple months.”
“Not so long ago, I lost my uncle to gun violence,” Darice wrote. “I was really close to my uncle, and losing him left a big gap in my life. He was the only positive male figure in my life and I just felt completely lost without him in my life. Shortly after losing my uncle, I lost two close friends, Zamarion Cooper and Mervin Bonner. It is scary, and I feel deep anxiety. After losing my uncle and friends to gun violence, I now realize that I need to stay focused on my future.”
For the Youth of the Year nominees, the Boys & Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore—which launched in 2015 and now serves about 1,400 children and teens in the Muskegon area—has played a major role in being able to focus on that future.
“My nephew was gunned down and killed, and it affected me deeply,” Amia wrote. “I am already a shy person, and his murder made me more shy. The [Boys & Girls] Club kept me from thinking and acting negatively. I could come after school and not go straight home to the sadness. It allowed me to grieve and process things on my own.”
“My nephew’s death changed me for the worse, but the club helped me cope a lot,” Amia continued. “I would like all youth to have a club experience like mine so they can know they have people that really care for them.”
For Brianna, who aspires to be a cardiovascular surgeon, the Boys & Girls Club allowed her the space to become a mentor to other students.
“I once read the following quote by Mitch Albom: ‘The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning,’” she wrote. “Through the things I’ve experienced in life and through the safe haven I’ve found at the Boys & Girls Club, my life has meaning and purpose. And, I want to help other club members find meaning and purpose for their lives. I personally see my leadership skills working when younger members of the Boys & Girls Club come to me for advice. This makes me feel so good as I realize that I am making the club become a safe haven for them like it has been for me.”
In addition to gun violence, a number of the students addressed mental health, including Jaiden, who attends Muskegon Heights Academy.
“The teens in my school suffer from depression and anxiety, and the violence in our community does nothing to help that,” he wrote. “…Sometimes, I have anxiety just walking home in my neighborhood. I guess it is just the fear of the unknown and never knowing if it will be your last day or not.”
Jaiden emphasized that he hopes to address mental health and gun violence in his community.
“I feel like we have to do more than talk about it,” he wrote. “We actually need an action plan. I cannot wait to be grown so I can do more to help.”
Of course, students like Jaiden and everyone else being honored as Youth of the Year nominees, are already helping. They’re inspiring hard—but crucial—conversations; they’re lighting a fire under all of our feet—they’re reminding us that gun violence is not relegated to the pages of a newspaper. These are our lives. Our neighbors’ lives. They’re bringing to light that our community’s students are deeply struggling with mental health.
“Today’s youth have been battling just to live,” Asia wrote. “So many of our peers have been taken from us when they had so much going for them.”
As teens and children face their everyday challenges, Asia emphasized that they are not alone—and she’s determined to continue to support and empower them as they wade through their lives.
“I plan to motivate future generations of youth to believe in themselves and to show them they have the same opportunity as everyone else to be great,” wrote Asia, who won the $2,500 Youth of the Year scholarship last year. “I am going to be a child social services worker because nobody deserves to be alone, especially not in a world like this.”
Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Photos courtesy of the Boys & Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore.