Whitney Stewart did not think she would live past her 14th birthday. But on Tuesday night, the petite 18-year-old stood tall on the stage at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. for the Boys and Girls Club of America’s National Youth of the Year celebration, receiving the night’s highest honor. 

“My 14-year-old self never could have imagined this day,” said Stewart, who was named the 2015-2016 National Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year. 

When Stewart’s parents got divorced while she was in middle school, her mom was left struggling to make ends meet. As a young teen living in poverty, Stewart was bullied by her peers. The taunts of her classmates fueled her depression, which made her question whether or not she wanted to live anymore. It wasn’t until her mom signed her and her brother up for the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota Counties in her hometown of North Point Fla., Stewart says, that she began to realize her potential. 

“I started going to the Boys and Girls Club and the staff really showed me that my life does matter and that I can achieve anything I set my mind to,” Stewart told ESSENCE prior to the evening’s events. 

The reality that Stewart had what it takes to make a difference in the world really set in when she and her club took a trip to Colorado. Stewart, then 13, had been a Florida girl used to running along beaches her whole life. On the trip, Stewart did something she never imagined herself doing. She climbed a mountain—shimmying across cliffs and making her way to the top, boulder by boulder. 

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“That was during a time in my life when I was at my lowest,” Stewart recalls. “It’s always stuck in my head that the circumstances that I’ve had to face in my life don’t define me. I can do anything.” 

Stewart was one of six teens recognized at the National Youth of the Year Celebration on Tuesday. Each teen shared moving stories of grit, resilience and triumph over tragedy before a packed crowd of luminaries and former Boys and Girls Club members at the National Building Museum in Washington. 

Since 1947, the Boys and Girls Club has recognized exemplary young people who’ve beat the odds; teens like Brooke Grand, who told ESSENCE her experience helping her older sister recover from drug abuse pushed her to help other young people dealing with substance issues. And Alora Allen, who said she “found her voice” after gaining a mentor and wants to help other youth do the same. Each of the teens will be presented with scholarships, take a trip to the White House, and continue sharing their message with young people all across America. 

Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington, a national spokesperson for Boys and Girls Club and former “club kid,” told ESSENCE the stories he heard Tuesday evening inspired him. 

“They beat the odds. They are winners whether they’re ‘Youth of the Year’ or not,” said Washington, who presented Stewart with her award. “I’m inspired [by their stories]. I get up in the morning and go, ‘What do I really have to worry about? It ain’t that bad.’”  

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Washington was joined on stage by representatives from Toyota, Taco Bell, Walt Disney, Congressmen John Boehner of Ohio and Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and singer songwriter Kelly Rowland, all of whom introduced the teens as they shared their stories with the crowd. 

Rowland, who introduced Stewart, told ESSENCE that being a mom compels her to get more involved with organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of America. 

“When I think about how much time, how much thought, and how passionate I am for my son and the betterment of his life I think about how it’s so many people here that feel that way,” Rowland said. “It’s so many people here who are a part of this organization who passionately deeply care about the youth and I feel the same way.” 

Rowland was joined on the “blue carpet” with former “youth of the year” Kiana Knolland, who she met two years ago at a Boys and Girls Club event. Knolland, like six out of seven of youths of the year since 2008 is a young woman of color. On Tuesday, Stewart joined the ranks becoming the seventh since 2008, a powerful symbol of the resilience shown by Black and brown women and girls—especially since girls weren’t officially added to the club charter until 1990. 

While the symbolism was palpable, for young Whitney Stewart, who went from being a teen consumed by feelings of worthlessness to starting her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania with dreams of one day becoming the President of the United States, the moment was personal. 

“It’s surreal,” Stewart said, beaming. 

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