ST. HELENA — Amid laughter and applause for the award winners at the annual Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year dinner, hearts swelled and eyes moistened as the honorees shared stories of triumph over struggle.
“They were so brave,” said Trent Yaconelli, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Helena and Calistoga, of the four club members who gave speeches at the 29th Annual Youth of the Year event on Jan. 25 in front of more than 150 attendees at Brasswood in St. Helena.
One club member in particular, Lucas Marquez, 15, who was chosen the overall winner, wove courage, maturity and laughter into his speech, sharing his feelings of how the Boys & Girls Club was a support system when he came out as a transgender teen, closing his speech with an aptly worded quote by the late comedian Robin Williams: “Everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about.”
“When I heard of the word ‘transgender’ I realized that was me. I could relate. My body parts did not match how I was feeling about myself. I was uncomfortable in my own body,” he said.
“When I was 12 years old, I found out about the Teen Center,” Marquez said. Clint Ferrier, Calistoga Teen Center unit director, was the first person he met. They formed a bond and enjoy teasing one another on a regular basis. One day, a friend of Marquez told Ferrier that “Lucia goes by Lucas now,” Marquez said.
“Coming out wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be because of my Teen Center family. I’m really thankful for having them in my life. No one gets judged at the Teen Center. I don’t get judged for who I am and what I like. It’s a place where I can just relax and escape. It’s my second home,” he said.
Marquez found he could talk to Ferrier and others there and it “made such a difference.”
“I found people at the Boys & Girls Club who really cared about me and were willing to listen. As a result, I became very talkative and shared things about my life, like my mom came from Argentina and my dad came from Uruguay, but I wanted to share more,” he said.
“There were times that they would look and see a little child skipping toward them. On the outside, the look of an innocent little girl, but on the inside was a wave of random frightening thoughts that I didn’t know how to deal with, but was afraid to share because I felt if I did I would be setting a bad example to the other kids.”
“At first, I had so many kids to play with I ignored my discomfort, but it got worse as the years went by. When I hit puberty is when my feelings became very intense and I didn’t know what to do. No matter what I did it was wrong. Like dressing in the locker room was especially traumatic. Imagine being equally uncomfortable being in the boys’ bathroom … I simply didn’t understand where I fit,” he said.
His family has been a major source of support too. He said his mom, Cristina Gonzalez, is the person he tells “everything” to, and one of the adults he likes to make laugh. He said he realized earlier this year what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
“I want to help people and make them laugh,” recalling that his first memory is of laughter.
Marquez will move on to a regional Boys & Girls Clubs of America Youth of the Year competition. Each unit of the Boys & Girls Club of St. Helena and Calistoga chose a Member of the Year to represent their individual units. Marquez is a member of the Calistoga Teen Center.
The other winners are David Blancas, 10, of the Calistoga Unit; Emily Hernandez, 14, of the St. Helena Unit, and Osvaldo Hernandez, 12, of the Howell Mountain Unit.
Each was recommended and selected for excelling in the organization’s core program areas such as character and leadership. Every month, a “Member of the Month” is selected, and of those members one is chosen as Member of the Year and is eligible for the Youth of the Year honor.
David was called “the genuine sunshine kid,” by Lainey Cronk, Calistoga Unit Director. “He is instrumental in making an environment of inclusive, hopeful, confident, good-natured excellence,” she said.
His fifth-grade teacher, Lisa Shepard, said in her letter of recommendation that he “exhibits kindness and compassion” outside the classroom.
The Boys & Girls Club is “a second home” to Emily Hernandez, who has been a club member since she was 5 years old.
Seen by her peers as a leader, Emily is the type of person “we need more of in this world,” said St. Helena Unit Director Ash Clements.
“I see a young woman who is generous with her heart. I see someone who is not afraid to be vulnerable. I see someone who is there to help kids who are struggling. I see someone who steps up to lead when leadership is needed most,” Clements said.
And Emily’s brother, Osvaldo Hernandez, another Member of the Year, said Emily gives him strength and support at home. He is an “above average student” and a “tireless worker,” said Rob Grace, sixth-grade teacher at Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School. And Osvaldo’s “character is clearly defined by his huge heart,” Grace wrote in his recommendation letter.
“When it comes to working closely with others, Osvaldo’s heart beats the loudest,” Grace said.
Osvaldo is a member of the new Howell Mountain Unit, which started in the fall of 2017.
Marquez received a check for $400, and each of the other club members received a $150 check.