Bigger and better event honors Northland 'Youth of the Year'Five teenagers from Boys & Girls Club branches across the region were honored in front of more than 140 people in the Great Lakes Ballroom at the Holiday Inn in downtown Duluth.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
Teenagers probably had no qualms with a pizza party in a church basement. Kathy Nyquist did.
She wanted the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Northland’s annual “Youth of the Year” celebration to be a bigger deal.
“It was so understated,” Nyquist said. She is a club board member and judged last year’s event that culminated with the basement awards show.
“I was hoping to see this program elevated,” Nyquist said.
It sure was Tuesday night.
Five teenagers from Northland branches across the region were honored in front of more than 140 people in the Great Lakes Ballroom at the Holiday Inn in downtown Duluth.
Cassie Mahlberg of the Lincoln Park branch was named the “Youth of the Year” and will move on to state competition later this year.
It was Mahlberg’s third try as a finalist and she was especially nervous this time because of the fancy digs at the hotel.
“It’s impressive,” she said of the grandeur of the event. “It made it even more scary.”
Dinner was had and Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon spoke eloquently about the importance of the clubs and the youth who participate.
“When I heard this was going to be at the Holiday Inn, I started to freak out,” said Mahlberg, a sophomore at Denfeld High School.
Nyquist will take that as a compliment of the efforts of the five-person Leadership Duluth team that assisted in organizing the event. The Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce sponsors the annual program and Nyquist let her four team members know right away last fall that she would like to take on the community project of ramping up the spectacle of the annual Boys & Girls Clubs celebration.
“They asked if we had any project ideas, and I went ‘A-ha, well I have one,’” Nyquist said.
“We wanted to make this a big event,” team member A.J. Axtell said.
She said the experience of gathering sponsors for the celebration and donations, along with working with the Boys & Girls Clubs members, was overwhelming.
“It’s just blown us away,” Nyquist said in agreement. “I’m a better person for it.”
If there was a theme to the evening, it was transformation. Each of the five candidates gave a speech, part of a series of judged events they were being scored on, that reflected hard times at home and better times at the club.
Mahlberg began her speech with a quote from Henry David Thoreau, about living the “life you imagined.”
She said she suffers from “back and brain strain” as she takes care of family at home and academics at school.
“I often feel like I am the caretaker of adults,” she said.
The Boys & Girls Club offered her respite — a place to study and to find a path for life.
“I found my confidence and am well on my way to the life I imagined,” she said.
Denfeld classmate Jordan McMillian was also a finalist. He spoke of sharing a small house in North Carolina with siblings and fighting to find his own space. But that was nothing compared to ending up homeless.
“It was real torture,” he said. At age 11, the shy kid was told the family was moving to Minnesota.
He’s found a place academically and in the arts at Denfeld, and it started at the Lincoln Park branch, he said.
“School is like my third home. The club is my second home,” he said.
Jasmine Thundercloud was the youngest finalist. The 13-year-old from Superior channeled the fish named Dory from the animated film “Finding Nemo.”
“Just keep swimming,” she said of her outlook on life.
“I’m a lucky kid,” she said in one breath. In the next she spoke of growing up without a father and being born without a kidney.
“Just keep swimming,” she repeated. “The Boys & Girls Clubs provides the scuba gear.”
Shawn Gawboy, 17, talked about being born with fetal alcohol syndrome and “parenting myself” for the first six years of her life.
Then she was adopted by a family in Tower and “my life changed forever.”
She is the second-oldest in a family of 12. She said the Boys & Girls Clubs helps her siblings blow off energy and “get out of my parents’ hair.”
Kenda Benner, 17, grew up in Nett Lake and the Bois Forte tribal lands. Her Boys & Girls Clubs branch offered bored kids an oasis of entertainment, “a gift,” she said.
Forget going to a big city for fun. “We can have just as much fun in a place we know,” she said.
Prettner Solon praised each finalist and the work of the clubs’ mentors in giving children a place to be themselves.
“Their work simply changes lives,” she said. “More than help, they offer hope.”
The five finalist and the monthly award winners all got “swag” bags filled with goodies from area businesses. It was just like Oscar night. The finalists all received $100 in cash from the organizing group.
But before you think the 41st annual “Youth of the Year” celebration has gone all fancy-pants and big-budget, just know that the dessert after plates of spaghetti consisted of ice cream sandwiches. It was a nod to the age of the awardees in the audience and to keep things fun.
Nyquist’s eyes lit up when she thought of next year and a celebration big enough to fill up an even larger hall.
“We’re not done with this yet,” she said.