GARY — Sanja Kirova had tears in her eyes when the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana named her its Youth of the Year on Thursday evening at Marquette Park Pavilion.
Kirova, 18, a member of the Portage club, was one of eight members nominated for the honor. She will go on to the state competition and potentially to regional and national competitions. More than 200 community members watched as Kirova and the other contestants were acknowledged throughout the evening.
Marcus Steele, 15, the runner-up, represents the John Will Anderson Gary Club.
The other participants were Ashley Burandt, 16, Cedar Lake club; Briana Lowry, 15, Duneland club; Kayla Anderson, 16, East Chicago Katherine House club; Shaonna Reeves, 15, Hammond club; Colleen Reister, 18, South Haven club; and Alison Thatcher, 14, Valpo club.
This is the first year one youth of the year was named since the Lake County and Porter County clubs merged as one. This honor recognizes a teen leader from the clubs who shows leadership, perseverance and passion.
Ryan Smiley, CEO of the clubs, said they have been doing this program for years.
"This is such a great program, and the competition increases every year," Smiley said. "This competition makes all the kids even better. This helps the kids become outstanding leaders inside and outside the club."
Kirova talked about her experiences 10 years ago, when she came to the club and spoke only Macedonian. She said the club was there for her emotionally and academically as she faces the perspectives of immigration. She said the club helped her transition to high school.
"Made behind these blue doors are generations of changemakers tackling diverse challenges together," Kirova said. "I am lucky to consider them my brothers and sisters, and role models."
Steele started going to the club in 2013, left for a while and then came back at age 13. He felt more stable in his life after returning to the club.
"The best part of my day at the club is mentoring younger members. I enjoy the opportunity to help them with challenges in their lives as someone helped me," he said.
Kirova was grateful to the crowd after winning the scholarship.
"I'm so grateful to represent this club, and I want to thank the staff who helped raise me," she said.
Her mother, Marina Kirova, held back tears as she expressed how proud she was.
"She's been working a lot lately on this, and she's getting ready to graduate and go to college," she said. "She's been so busy with this program. I am so proud of her."