Five contestants stood before the judges for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cleveland’s Youth of the Year competition.
Words painted a picture of five different lives with the one binding tie being the contestants’ love for their club and a desire to put good back into the world.
Chloey Tatum, Richard Ben-Judah, Embry Barks, Jessica Gilbert and Clifton Biddwell each received 15 minutes for a speech and judges’ questions.
Every teenager spoke about how the Boys and Girls Clubs helped them through trials in life.
Tatum, a senior at Cleveland High School, said she was bullied to the point of skipping school. She explained to the judges she feared for her life. Her mother signed her up with the Boys and Girls Club in “desperate” attempt to help her daughter.
The Painter Unit became Tatum’s safe haven. She joined at a time when she was suicidal, cold and distraught. The Boys and Girls Club opened up Tatum’s eyes to a world she had never known.
“They showed me compassion, love, strength and a beauty I had never known before,” Tatum said. “I fell in love with the kids there. They became my world.”
Audience members listened attentively as students laid out their stories one-by-one. One lady held a clump of tissues balled into her fists.
“I forgot about this part,” she whispered to her seat mate.
Ben-Judah informed the judges he loved to dance and sing. He said the club inspired him to not only pursue his interests, but to be great, as well. Certain leaders stood out to the Bradly Central High School senior.
He said Wyatt Bevis, teen center director, gives him advice on relationships and school.
Ben-Judah added, “He has been there for me through everything.”
Carl Porter is the man Ben-Judah would like to become.
“He can be strict at times, but in a fun way,” Ben-Judah assured the judges.
He finished his list of mentors with Andrew Austin. He said Austin showed him how to be a fine gentleman. Ben-Judah learned from Austin college is for everyone.
“The shoes I’ve worn have many brands: love, music and trust. I’ve walked a 1,000 miles in these shoes,” Ben-Judah said. “I’ve been to many places. Out of all of these places, the Boys and Girls Club is my favorite.”
Barks, a Polk County freshman, blew the judges away with her calm delivery.
She told the judges how her father’s unexpected eating disorder impacted her life. She battled an eating disorder, became depressed and developed a distrust of everyone.
Her mother gathered Barks and her siblings together.
“I was able to look at my mother and realized the strength it must have taken her to leave my father and raise us on her own,” Barks said. “He had always told her she would not make it on her own, but she proved him wrong.”
Every day is a mystery to Barks. She said she never knows what to expect. The Benton Unit provides a haven.
“I know that when I am there I always have someone there to support me, listen and talk about my problems,” Barks said. “...My club has given me the tools in order to be successful in my education, career and life.”
She informed the judges the club’s involvement in her life prepared her to meet each day with dignity and strength.
Boys and Girls Club volunteer Jessica Gilbert, a senior at Silverdale Baptist Academy, delighted judges with her animated speech.
She spoke about her experience with a pathological liar which led to post traumatic stress and counseling. Suddenly, Gilbert felt as if she could not trust anyone. She said she felt like nothing would be the same again.
A year later, Gilbert was asked to volunteer at the local Boys and Girls Club.
“I took up the offer as a way to escape the house of pain I was in, and maybe find the joy I had lost. Little did I know what awaited me in that little building on 11th Street,” Gilbert said. “From the moment I walked in, I knew something was different.”
Gilbert said she fell in love with the children at the Painter Unit.
“They needed me, and I needed them,” Gilbert continued. “Children touch parts of your heart that you never knew existed.”
The love of the local Boys and Girls Club helped teach her to love again. She learned there was nothing to fear. The workers at the unit became both mentors and friends.
“It is because of my Boys and Girls Club that I am who I am today: renewed and remade,” Gilbert said. “I have a hopeful future now. I found God’s calling in the small rooms of that unit. I dream of being a teacher like no other.”
Youth of the Year winner Clifton Biddwell finished out the night with a speech three years in the making.
He shared how his father’s drug addiction negatively impacted his family. Sometimes he felt like another statistic. Sometimes he believed the mean words spoken over his life.
Words like, “You will never be anything in life,” began to lose strength once he joined the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cleveland.
Mentors spoke into his life. They let Biddwell know he had a future, and a story of greatness. He told the judges his is set to begin May 9 when he graduates from Cleveland High.
Biddwell competed in the Youth of the Year competition two years prior to his most recent attempt. He said each and every year was a learning experience, whether for public speaking or life goals.
He said he is afraid of where he would be without the Boys and Girls Clubs.
“Each and every day at the club I try to impact someone,” Biddwell said. “That is my impact every day at the club.”
Biddwell will continue on to the state level of the Youth of the Year competition. Judges named Tatum first runner-up and Barks second runner-up.
BGCC Executive Director Charlie Sutton expressed his thanks to the community’s support.
“It is refreshing, I guess, to see the audience in our community respond to the needs of our kids through love, through understanding, through encouragement,” Sutton said.
“We just love the opportunity to share the story and see people begin to invest their lives and their sense of what is important [into the clubs] and really project these kids into the future.”