CHICAGO Samantha C. said that having a troubled life at home forced her to grow up quickly. After joining the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago however, she’s proving to be unstoppable.

“I never knew how strong I was until strong was the only choice I had,” Samantha said.

The above excerpt is just a portion of the poignant essay that won 15-year-old Samantha C. this year’s ‘Youth of the Year’ award from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago in February.

“It’s amazing, it means a lot to me. I never saw myself being in an opportunity like this,” Samantha said.

Samantha is a member of the True Value Boys and Girls Clubs in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.

Out of six finalists from Chicago-area club members, Samantha captured the judge’s attention with her hard work and determination.

Mimi Leclair is President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago.

“The beauty of having the Youth of the Year award or honor is it really does set you up for a number of scholarship opportunities,” Leclair said.

Every year the BGCC serves an average of 20,000 students between 14 and 18 years old, leading this year’s virtual ceremony to feel and look much different.

Judges evaluate the essays written and delivered by the students, typically in front of a large audience in a grand ballroom, with their families and club mentors in the audience.

These speeches reveal a lot about the students’ lives, how the clubs have helped them through hard times and how they give back.

In Samantha’s speech this year, she shared her personal story about the difficulties of growing up with a parent battling drug addiction.

“I grew up in an unstable home, my mom was always under the influence, and she wasn’t capable of taking care of me and my siblings, so I took care of them. We took care of ourselves,” Samantha said.

Samantha, like many kids in the clubs, has faced adversity at every step of the way. Part of her participation in the Boys and Girls Club is her role in Keystone Club, a leadership program focusing on community services and career preparation.

“She excels at school, she excels at the club. She is a leader of her peers and she’s a mentor,” Leclair said.

With her ‘Youth of the Year’ award, Samantha has snagged an honor typically given to high school seniors. She said being able to have a welcoming safe haven has been life-changing.

“Coming here to the club made me realize that a lot of kids go through it and you could share your story here without the fear of being judged,” Samantha said.

The club has given her, like many, a support system that fuels her need to give back to other kids who may be struggling. As for what she’ll be when she grows up, Samantha already knows.

“I want to be a social worker and help kids that need help and give them the help I didn’t have growing up,” Samantha said.

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