Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana honors young leaders at annual Youth of the Year ceremony

Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana honors young leaders at annual Youth of the Year ceremony

Thursday evening, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana hosted its Youth of the Year reception, which celebrates teens whose Club experience has empowered them to find their voice and achieve success.

“Tonight is one of our most spectacular nights of the year,” said Ryan Smiley, President and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana. “This is where we recognize a teen leader from each of our ten local Clubs, who represent the very foundation of our three core values: academic success, good character and leadership, and healthy lifestyles.”

This year there were eight Youth of the Year candidates, who arrived to the venue in limousines, provided by All Around Limo. Youth of the Year is Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana’s premier character and leadership program for teens, and the candidates were evaluated by a panel of five local community judges, Mike Wortham, BP America, Inc., Tricia Bauner, Toyota of Merrillville, Bob Migliorini, American Precision Services, Inc., Anne Walsh, American Licorice Company, and Michelle Bush , Valparaiso High School.

The local winner will be sent on to the State competition, where they will potentially advance to regional and national Youth of the Year competitions. Ultimately, they have the opportunity to earn a trip to the White House, as well as additional academic scholarships along the way.

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“They are judged based on character, community involvement, leadership within the Club, three written essays, personal interviews, and academic standing,” Smiley explained. “They must also demonstrate the impact that the Club has had on their lives in their own words.”

Each of the deserving candidates received a “swag bag” filled with some amazing gifts: ipads and cases were given by American Persicion Services, American Licorice Company, Lakeside Wealth Management and Centier Bank; Awards Network provided a Bose External Bluetooth Speaker; Leslie Plesac, donated Custom Notecards for all Candidates and Bonnie Coleman provided Starbuck’s Gift Cards, Centier Bank also gave Portable Phone Chargers and the organization’s young professionals group “PAL’s, who in addition to all the mentoring, speech practice, clothes shopping donated a $50 Visa Gift Card for each youth.

Following a cocktail hour with delicious food, guests took their seats to await the introduction of the eight celebrated Club members. Each candidate took the stage to share how  Boys & Girls Club has changed their life.

First to the stage was Cedar Lake Club member, Ashley Burandt.

“The Club has helped me to look at people and see their individuality,” Burandt said. “We are each unique in our own way, and it’s given me the ability to cherish that.”

Next at the microphone was South Haven Club member, Colleen Reister.

“After I moved from my house in Miller, I was alone and scared,” Reister said. “With the help of the Club, I was able to meet people and I was very happy about that.”

The third candidate to speak was Shaonna Reeves, representing the Hammond Club.

“The Club has given me positive leadership to guide me, and that really changed my life,” Reeves said.

After a brief introduction of the first three youths, the top five candidates had the opportunity to share their stories with the audience in longer speeches. First to tell her story was Duneland Club member, Briana Lowry.

“Support each other no matter what differences you have,” Lowry began. “This is my life philosophy, and it has shaped me into who I am today.”

Lowry explained how Boys & Girls Club became a vital pillar of support for her when her grandfather, a strong figure in her life, passed away from cancer.

“I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but Boys & Girls Club was able to help me through these times,” Lowry continued. “They support individualism and free expression, which helped me realize my future goal – to become a special education teacher.”

Next to speak was Kayla Anderson, member of the East Chicago Club, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Anderson explained how Boys & Girls Club helped her turn tragedy to triumph, and work through her mother’s breast cancer diagnoses in January of 2017.

“This was a huge turning point in my life,” Anderson said. “My mom is the strongest person I know, and I was devastated when I found out; I didn’t know who to talk to or what to do. Boys & Girls Club provided stability for me throughout that whole journey. It taught me the value of patience and gave me a place to go. Today, I am happy to report that my mother is healthy, and I am proud to be standing here today as a junior staff member of the East Chicago Club.”

Sanja Kirova of the Portage Club spoke next. Her speech, which made the crowd chuckle and smile, highlighted the little ways the Club has stuck with her.

“Have you ever smelled freedom? Do you know what safety sounds like? Remember the taste of joy? Just enter Boys & Girls Club,” she began. “Every time I enter the big blue doors, I’m hit with the smell of sweat, feet, and pizza, and the ringing of laughter. Of the four, laughter and pizza have always been my favorite.”

Born in a small village in Macedonia, Kirova moved to the United States at eight years old and found a new family in the Boys & Girls Club to fill the void of the one she left behind.

“Here, I was taught how to read and write, and uttered my first English words without receiving any comments on my accent,” Kirova said. “I am forever grateful to Boys & Girls Club for erasing all my fears, and teaching me that no challenge is too big.”

Valpo Club member Allison Thatcher followed, captivating the audience with a moving story of how the Club helped her overcome the effects of bullying and a broken home.

“When I came to Valpo six years ago, I moved in with my aunt, my uncle, and their four teenage boys,” Thatcher said. “This was hard, since I grew up in an all-girls household with the absence of a father figure.

“One day, a Club staff member approached me, encouraged me to open up, and from there my life took off,” Thatcher said. “I became more open, less shy, and an outgoing young lady. I want to inspire kids the same way that staff member inspired me, and eventually take my love for science and become a pediatrician. The Club helped me find my voice and my future.”

Last to present was Marcus Steele of the John Will Anderson Gary Club.

“Whether it’s a birthday or anniversary, we all have those dates throughout the year that are important to us,” Steele said. “For me, that date is December 2, 2013, the day I started going to Boys & Girls Club.”

Steele highlighted a time when the Club pulled him out of a low state.

“In seventh grade, I started losing friends at school and struggled with financial situations,” Steele said. “I became distant, quiet, and unenergetic, but I began to rebuild myself through the Club. I enrolled in summer programs, opened up, and their loving and caring staff showed me that I could make my dreams a reality.”

He also emphasized the importance of positive mentors in the lives of young children.

“A lot of our youth is missing that, and it leads to drugs and gang violence,” Steele said. “All it takes is one person, for that is all it took for me. Now, six years later I am a role model and leader myself.”

Though all the candidates demonstrated outstanding perseverance, maturity, and eloquence, one stood out among the rest and was named the 2019 Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana Youth of the Year: Sanja Kirova. She has traveled to California to speak with world-renowned illustrators and animators, has her own computer science curriculum for girls, and has been accepted into Columbia University. Now, she’s headed to the State level competition for Youth of the Year.

“This feels like a dream!” Kirova said. “The diverse family at Boys & Girls Club shows love and support in unique and priceless ways. I am living proof of the great futures that they create.”

Congratulations to these incredible young leaders a thank you to the corporate sponsors who made this special celebration of Northwest Indiana’s youth possible:
The Legacy Foundation
Haywood & Fleming Associates
Lakeshore Bone and Joint
General Insurance Services
All Around Limo
And American Licorice, the Presenting Sponsor, a company that truly exemplifies what it means to be a BRAND with a PURPOSE.

For more information about Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana, please visit