As a child, Whitney Stewart didn’t believe her life was worth living. In fact, she didn’t think she’d make it past the age of 14. But this week, the Florida teen demonstrated she has transformed the many negatives in her life into positives. As a community leader and motivator, she was selected as the 2015 National Youth of the Year by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Stewart, 18, of North Point, Florida, shared the stage with five other elite youth selected from among some 4 million teens from Boys & Girls Clubs across the country. In their speeches, all spoke of hopelessness, insecurity and shame. And all spoke of their ability to grab the lifeline offered by the Boys & Girls Clubs and how the organization led them toward lives filled with achievement and integrity.
Stewart, the oldest of three raised by a single mother, offered powerful words of encouragement to the audience of supporters, which included congressmen, celebrities, global business leaders (and even Mickey Mouse) – as well as children from several East Coast clubs.
“I’m here to look into the eyes of America’s youth and say, ‘You matter,’ ” she said at the 68th Annual National Youth of the Year Celebration in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. “Even if you don’t feel like it right now, I want you to know you do have greatness in you.”
As the national winner, Stewart received $100,000 in scholarship funds. The club grants $1 million in scholarships to local, state, regional and national YOY throughout the country.
“The Boys & Girls Club saved my life,” Whitney tells PEOPLE. “It saved my life when I didn’t think my life was worth living. It showed me that I had potential and I could do what I set my mind to.”
Denzel Washington, the national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs, offered his trademark smile and high praise for the evening’s young leaders during his remarks.
“It’s nothing but success stories,” he said. “It’s inspiring to me, just to hear them, what they’ve been through, and what their futures are all about.”
The club had a huge impact on him as a youth, he said. “I remember the mayor of our town … he came to our club to speak and in the end he asked, ‘Does anyone have any questions?’ I raised my hand, and we ended up getting into a bit of a debate. At the end of it he said, ‘Young man, with your smarts, you can be anything you want to be.’ I never forgot that and I just thought, ‘Wow, someone’s telling me I can be anything I want.’ So the influence we adults have on these young impressionable minds is so important. You never know who you’ve touched.”
The club’s focus on confidence and character influenced Denzel as a parent as well.
“The lessons they taught me there became crystal-clear as soon as my first child was born,” he tells PEOPLE.
After squinting at the teleprompter from the podium onstage, emcee Sherri Shepherd riffed about needing – but denying her need for – reading glasses. “This night means a lot of love and a lot of inspiration for me,” she tells PEOPLE. “These kids come from circumstances where they could say, ‘Hey, I can be a victim,’ but they decided to go further and push through. I’m completely inspired.”
Kelly Rowland said she is impressed by the way the teen leaders know how to attract the right people, telling PEOPLE, “You meet so many people in life and if you attach yourself to the wrong ones, you never know what that’ll bring you. The fact that these youth are able to choose the right friends and make these wise decisions at this young age, I think it speaks volumes to the kind of decision making they’ll have in the future.”
Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged his recent announcement on Capitol Hill: “You may have heard that there’ve been a few changes in my life recently,” he said at the event. As a man of humble origins himself, Boehner is a long-time supporter of the Boys & Girls Clubs. In a self-described “Boehner Moment,” the congressman teared up while discussing “the people who believe in me” who helped him to succeed and the fact that some kids, like the teen leaders, didn’t have some of the opportunities that many in the room have enjoyed.