An audience of several hundred supporters of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley were rapt Thursday night, as four teen club members delivered short but moving speeches about how the club has changed their lives. At the close of the program, Sonoma Valley High School junior Dulce Mexicano was named the organization’s 2018 Youth of the Year.
Established in 1947 by the national Boys & Girls Clubs of America organization, Youth of the Year recognizes teen members for their service to their local club, community and family; and also looks at academic success, strong moral character, life goals, poise and public speaking ability.
The four Sonoma Valley Youth of the Year finalists were Pravee Watthanawes, Ilse Arias, Miranda Zuniga and Mexicano.
Dulce Mexicano’s moving speech began with the Sonoma Valley High School junior recounting stories of having been bullied as a child and overcoming crippling shyness. Her bully called her a “ghost” because she was so quiet.
“I felt invisible for a couple of years because a person labeled me and I started to believe it,” said Dulce. “I became a ghost, I became quiet. I then met some friends who got me onto the wrong path and I started going out and coming home late. These friends then tried to get me involved with drugs.”
Dulce resisted and returned to a friend group that welcomed her “with their arms wide open.”
Dulce also struggled with anxiety but her friends helped her to overcome it and encouraged her to try things outside of her comfort zone. Her best friend introduced her to the Boys & Girls Club.
“I was once scared to go to the club because I thought the people were not going to like me,” she said. “I met Johana [Perdomo, the club’s college and career program manager] and she was like a guardian angel because she listened to me and really gave me helpful advice.”
Most impactful for Dulce was her experience in the club’s Girls United program.
“Through Girls United, I started mentoring two amazing middle school girls,” she explained. “I became more connected to the Valley and community because this group gave me the opportunity to see the world differently.”
Dulce then helped Johana Perdomo on a video during a bullying prevention week in which club members shared their stories.
“I was able to finally come out of my shell and voice what had happened to me, the negative messages that I had internalized and, most importantly, what I was doing so that it wouldn’t happen to anyone else,” said Dulce. “Through this project, I was able to talk to my peers about how bullying can impact someone and ask them to take a pledge to not stay quiet when they see bullying.”
Dulce said that thanks to the Boys & Girls Club, she is no longer that quiet girl who will let people walk all over her.
“Before you today is a strong, intelligent, young woman who is ready to conquer whatever obstacles she encounters,” said Dulce.
This year’s judging panel included Francine Brossier, owner of Sonoma Harvest Foods; graphic designer Melissa Stone; executive coach Jay Rooke; Starbucks District Manager Gary Lustig; and journalist Sydnie Kohara.
Judging panelist and BGC board member Jay Rooke said that the decision was very difficult this year but that the panel was impressed by Dulce’s can-do attitude.
The Youth of the Year recipient receives a $2,000 scholarship and a new laptop computer. Each finalist receives a $500 scholarship.