By Whitney Stewart, Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota and Desoto Counties alum and 2015 National Youth of the Year
As seen on bgca.org.
When I was 13 years old, I was struggling with depression. My parents had recently divorced, and I was having a hard time understanding my potential and purpose in life.
Everything changed when I went on a teen leadership trip to Colorado with Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties. I was a Florida girl who had never seen a mountain in her life, so you can imagine my surprise when halfway through the trip, the Club staff told us we would be climbing a mountain at the end of the week! The time inevitably came, and we found ourselves hiking up the mountain and even climbing boulders - I was extremely nervous but I kept climbing. Eventually, I found myself at the top.
That’s when one of the Club staff turned to me and said, "Whitney, today you climbed a mountain. If you can do that, you can do anything."
In the seven years I attended the Boys & Girls Club, climbing that mountain stands out the most. The experience inspired me to believe in myself and my potential to make a positive impact in my community. With a transformed mindset, I began to set ambitious goals and pursue them wholeheartedly.
My Club mentors helped me take the necessary steps to achieve my goals. They helped me think through the types of classes I should take to get into the college of my choice, supported my ambitions to step into leadership roles within my Club’s Keystone Club, and helped me navigate the financial aid and college admissions process. They made sure I had the tools I needed to achieve success. Thanks to their support and a lot of hard work, I received a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.
The relationships I have from the Club have been crucial to my growth throughout the years. In high school, the staff reminded me of my long-term goals and would keep me accountable whenever I felt discouraged. When I needed help navigating a difficult conversation or decision, my mentors shared the wisdom I needed to be successful.
After graduation, my Club mentors even made a point to support me with the transition to college. One of the most important skills they taught me was to ask for help. They always reminded me that I didn’t have to face challenges alone, and that translated into me seeking resources on campus — like identifying mentors at the Makku Black Cultural Center or attending office hours when I needed to clarify key concepts. I'm 24 now, and I live on the opposite side of the United States, but I still communicate regularly with my Club mentors and visit them whenever I’m back in Sarasota.
After my freshman year at Penn, one of my Boys & Girls Club mentors helped me secure an internship in Washington, D.C. working in the government relations department for Boys & Girls Clubs of America. The internship taught me about the power of public-private partnerships in addressing significant societal challenges. The experience fueled my interest in policy and led me to my career as a business sustainability strategy consultant.
In my role as a consultant, I guide clients through the journey of unlocking value while embedding sustainability across their operations. Storytelling and building bridges for public-private partnerships is crucial in this work. I wouldn’t have learned how to tell my own story — let alone paint a compelling picture for others — without the leadership experiences I had at the Club.
The Club also provided me opportunities to empathize with the experiences of people from all different types of circumstances, experiences and cultures. Whether it was a study abroad experience, playing basketball, making art projects at the Club, or volunteering in the local community, interacting with different people and understanding their challenges helps me effectively lead and communicate in my job on a daily basis.
I learned so much at the Club that helped me find my purpose. Most importantly, I learned that there isn't one linear path for your life. There will always be boulders to scramble over or slippery rocks to climb. But standing on top of that mountain, I learned that with the right support, you can make it to the top. Just keep climbing.