A red carpet was rolled out for four of the most promising members of the community Thursday evening for the 45th Boys & Girls Clubs of Porter County Youth of the Year Award. The nominees - Eric Allison, Tyler Goodman, Sanha Kirova, and Allison Thatcher - arrived in limousines, anxious for the night's endeavors.
President Ryan Smiley said, “We came together tonight to recognize all of the kids achievements and all that they do. This is our signature youth recognition program. Since the club opened in 1971, it has continued to encourage our youth to step up into a leadership role.”
In the weeks leading up to the awards presentation, the group of four worked closely with Professionals Advancing Local Success (PALS), an organization unique to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Porter County. PALS was able to assist the kids in areas including speech, etiquette, dress, and interview techniques.
After lots of preparation, the nominees share their stories with a panel of five judges: Kim Abbett, Derrick Bretz, Julie Lauck, Linda Rodenbarger, and Dr. Richard Weigel. Each candidate submitted an essay as well as letters of recommendation. They also gave a speech for the judges, followed by an interview. Judges looked for the candidate that best embodied the values of leadership and service; academic excellence; and healthy lifestyles.
Dr. Richard Weigel said, “We get an opportunity to get to know the candidates and from there we determine who is the Youth of the Year. What we’re looking for is some young person who has the ability to speak positively and authentically about their experience with the Boys and Girls club and someone who is able to convey what the heart and soul of the Boys and Girls Club is.”
As the Superintendent of Portage Township Schools, Weigel said, “At Portage, we send so many of our kids to the Boys & Girls Club. They help our kids in so many ways and we are so grateful for everything they do.”
Thursday evening, the four candidates were able to share their stories with friends, family, and previous Youth of the Year winners dating back to 1972. Eric Allison of the Duneland Club volunteers every Monday at his church serving dinners for Jacob’s Table. After joining the Boys & Girls Club, Allison’s D’s in school improved to a 3.9 GPA. Allison said he has “personally seen the club’s profound effect on the youth,” specifically emphasizing the importance of their drug awareness programs.
Allison Thatcher of the Valparaiso Club is a three-year member and president of Torch Club. Thatcher said that after becoming a member of the Boys & Girls Club, she wants to show kids that they do not have to be shy or scared. Sanja Kirova of the Portage Club won last year’s competition, again being nominated this year. Kirova has been a national winner in the Digital Arts Festival and STEM Video Game Challenge. After moving to the United States from Macedonia in 2009, Kirova became a member of the club where she learned English and made her first friends after the move.
Kirova said, “My parents brought me to this country for the opportunities and I found mine at the Boys and Girls Club.”
Tyler Goodman of the South Haven Club volunteers at a local men’s shelter making and delivering food. He is a ten-year member of the Boys & Girls Club who aspires to be a Porter County Police Officer.
Following speeches made by all four candidates, Goodman was named Youth of the Year. He said, “I’m ecstatic and speechless. We’re all winners, but it’s a really big privilege to actually win Youth of the Year after being a club member for ten years.”
When Goodman’s family went through a period of economic hardship, the Boys & Girls Club took them off the street and offered them a place to live until they could get back on their feet.
Diana Hopkins, Tyler’s mother, said, ”The Boys & Girls club is amazing. They’ve always been there for my family in any situation. The best thing that any community could have is a Boys & Girls Club.”