Damari White from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern Nevada doesn’t want other youth growing up the way that he did in Detroit. He doesn’t want other youth having to remember a childhood like his with a father being locked up for dealing drugs. He doesn’t want them feeling judged based on the color of their skin. Instead, he has plans for college, starting his own nonprofit and keep those kids from having the same life he did. “My club has allowed me to see how real and genuine people can be, not just my club, but the organization as a whole,” White said. When he was named the 2021 Nevada State Boys and Girls Clubs Youth of the Year on Wednesday, he was genuinely surprised. The annual competition that gives youth around the state a chance to demonstrate their public speaking skills and develop leadership and self-confidence moved to a virtual format this year due to the pandemic. Seven representatives from the clubs around the state, Fallon Naval Air Station and Nellis Air Force Base competed to go on to the Pacific Region round Wednesday. White competed against traditional club members from Mason Valley, Western Nevada, Elko and Truckee Meadows. Grace Kurian was announced as the Military Youth of the Year from Nellis Air Force Base’s 99th Force Support Squadron.
“I was kind of surprised there was something like this out there,” Kurian said. “This is my new motivation.“It’s amazing to watch how so many people are impacted by something we just read about,” she said. “I was able to watch how many people needed that food and having a place to go, so I’m always trying to give back to my community any way that I can.” Kurian, during her speech, said she was a self-described “proud military brat,” sharing that living as a military daughter isn’t very alluring. She often struggled as the “new girl” and tried to fit into her community as a student of color. The competition has allowed her to become a more “courageous” person, going from being shy and quiet to being more extroverted in part due to her willingness to assist as a volunteer, she said. “I wanted to do the best, I wanted to be the best,” she said. Each of the candidates, all of whom had mentors to guide them through the entire application process, shared personal experiences about growing up and their perspectives about challenging issues about identity, race, family and the importance of mentorship within their own communities. They all credited their own Boys and Girls Club for the personal assistance they received in difficult times. Lynnzee Vasquez from BGC of Truckee Meadows shared how she found her passion for volunteering and how she managed to improve her grades after her father suffered a heart attack.
She has aspirations of becoming a forensic investigator and to help influence at-risk youth in positive ways to help them overcome some of the challenges she faced, she said. Jimmy Murphy, a senior at Elko High School representing the Boys and Girls Clubs of Elko, described a constantly changing childhood after his parents, involved in gang activity, forced them to keep seeking safer environments.
Murphy said eventually he was left with his grandmother who didn’t have the resources to take care of him and his siblings sufficiently. The BGC eventually stepped in to assist, and Murphy said he went from “surviving to prevailing,” and will soon graduate and hopes to become an electrician. “America’s youth need to know they will have hardship and pain, and they, too, will have obstacles,” Murphy said in his speech. “They, too, can survive. My name is Jimmy, and I just want a chance.” Elijah Garner, a candidate for Military Youth of the Year, recounted being both the son of a military family always on the move and living in certain places lacking diversity.
Garner, part French Canadian, part Black and part Central American, said it was always difficult to make friends growing up in Hawaii or eventually on the mainland where he would come to the Fallon Naval Air Station, usually being used to being without his father. “People are just a product of their environment,” he said during his speech. “They grew up thinking certain things. I’m very proud of who I am.” Shay Hiney from BGC of Western Nevada spoke of struggling with mental health issues and his gratitude for the club’s support for allowing him to be himself as a member of the LGBTQ community.
He shared how he suffered from thoughts of suicide during his sophomore year, but began recovering and as of Jan. 29 has begun receiving testosterone injections while become more active with the club and has been enjoying painting, sketching and mentoring others. “I’m so grateful to be able to go to the club,” Hiney said. “I can adapt to any situation, lead and be there to support all types of people.” Michael Alvarez of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Mason Valley focused on his transition spending time apart from his parents growing up, nervous to be around the club and eventually its teen center, describing it as a “ghost town.”
He said he has become a proud youth development professional and has made more friends and realizes “tomorrow is not promised,” thankful for the tutors who’s encouraged him along the way. Among the judges this year were Los Angeles Rams player Austin Corbett, Campagni Auto Group general manager Jeff Campagni and Bank of America senior vice president Nick Rowe. Corbett, a Reno native and an offensive lineman for the Rams, said every candidate impressed the judges. “These candidates are so advanced and come from such diverse backgrounds,” Corbett said before announcing the winners. “We want to commend you for putting yourselves out there even for doing the application.” Rowe, also a Reno market manager for Bank of America, said it was rewarding to serve as a judge and noted he was proud of White and Kurian as they go on to the regional round. “The most difficult part of being a judge is only being able to select one of them to advance when any one of them would be such an amazing representative for Nevada,” Rowe said. “Just like the other skills that the program teaches, for those candidates that did not advance, it also teaches them to deal with setbacks. In many ways, this might even be the most important lesson that they can learn.” White and Kurian both received $2,500 scholarships and now will proceed to regionals.