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Benton County Boys and Girls Club announces 'Youth of the Year'

by Lara Hightower | March 12, 2017 at 1:00 a.m.
Fernanda Alcantara will be honored as the Benton County Boys & Girls Club’s “Youth of the Year” on March 30. Alcantara has also won the award at the state level.

The Benton County Boys & Girls Club boasts some pretty impressive statistics on the front page of its website: Seventy-five percent of Boys & Girls Club members report finding valuable adult connections at the club. Eighty-two percent of teen members volunteer in the community at least once per year. Ninety-five percent of members report being on grade level. Eighty-six percent report plans to go to college after graduation.

"We focus on character and leadership, academic success and healthy lifestyles, which are our big initiatives," explains Benton County Boys & Girls Club CEO Todd Huff. Huff says more than 3,800 Benton County kids are served by the organization's five centers: the Carl & Alleen McKinney Unit in Bentonville, the HLM Teen Center in Bentonville and locations in Rogers, Bella Vista and Pea Ridge.

Benton County Boys and Girls Club

Youth of the Year Celebration

When — 6:45-8:30 p.m. March 30

Where — John Q. Hammons Center, 3303 S. Pinnacle Hills Pkwy. in Rogers

Cost — $100-$1,000

Information — (479) 273-7187

Huff says that, despite the fact that Boys & Girls Club enrollments have dropped across the United States, enrollment figures have stayed steady or increased for teens in Benton County. This has resulted in a new Boys & Girls Club center in Pea Ridge and the hope of opening an additional center in Rogers to handle the demand.

"It would offer the same thing as our other clubs: after school and summer programs," says Huff. "We would love to create more space to house our teens after school, to work on career preparation, academics -- really, preparing them for college or the next level. Not every child wants to go to college or is meant to go to college, so trying to set them up for the next level for their future is kind of the game plan."

"The most compelling thing to me when I first started working here, and what I always try to tell our sponsors, is that a lot of these kids would not be able to eat unless they came to the club," says development director Amanda Cupp. "I think that is the most impactful thing, that we provide all of those meals for those kids and make sure they don't go home hungry."

"We kind of take the approach that it definitely takes a community," says Huff. "Our kids are in school from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., and then we have them until 7 p.m. [We are] able to provide a snack and a meal for our kids while our learning centers are here to help them with homework. We also work with the schools, the counselors, the principals, working with them to make sure the kids are getting the tutoring and mentorship after school that they need. That's a huge focus for us.

"One thing that we take a lot of pride in is that most of our kids, this is a second home to them. This is a place of safety and a place where they have fun. That's a huge part of their life, and we provide a role here that is essential for them."

Huff says that their high school character and leadership group, Keystone, won the National Career Preparation Award and the National Academic Success Award at the recent Keystone conference. They were also nominated for the National Keystone of the Year, a huge honor, says Huff.

"We're really focusing on those areas," he says. "College tours, taking education outside of the classroom -- just providing opportunities for young people and collaborating with the school to really set them up for a successful future."

Cupp says their upcoming event, the Youth of the Year Celebration, is a chance to show the community what kind of skills, talent and character the Boys and Girls Club helps instill in its members.

"This event is all about celebrating our youth," she says. "It's not the typical nonprofit event in Northwest Arkansas. It's really special in the way that we have a captivated audience, and our kids sing and dance and tell their stories. I've been to so many events in Northwest Arkansas for different causes, and that's something that I think is really special -- everybody is silent and still and watching our kids. We can really illustrate our mission, and what works, and how we impact these kids. Some of them don't have a home life at all. Some of them live in cars, in shelters. This is really their home, for some of them. And the community is such a big piece of that. The fact that we have community support is what makes this happen, so we like to make sure that everyone sees what they're helping with -- the tangible results. It's amazing."

As always, the Benton County Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year will be celebrated at the event, and this year's honoree is Fernanda Alcantara.

"I think the thing that really separates her from so many of the other contestants in the pool is that she has great academics -- her grades are great, she has done so many things with community service and giving back, and her focus on caring about others is really, to me, what separates her," says Huff. "She's just really special when it comes to really wanting to make a difference. She's had difficult situations that she has had to overcome in her life. When she talks and shares her story, you can feel that passion behind her really wanting to make a positive impact in the world."

"The women's shelter is something that is important to her, and when they were organizing their Color Run fund raiser, I think Fernanda actually organized that for them," says Cupp. "She just has really great leadership skills. She organizes things to make them happen -- it's crazy for someone that young."

Alcantara has even won Youth of the Year for the state of Arkansas. She now has the opportunity to win scholarship money at the regional Youth of the Year Awards in Dallas. Huff says a previous winner from Benton County came away with $53,000 in scholarships for college.

This year's celebration is nearly sold out, but Cupp and Huff are quick to say that there are other ways to help out.

"Our kids need mentors," says Huff. "We need volunteers. We need people to come and spend time with our youth. Just play a game of basketball or help with homework or let a child read to you in the afternoon. They might not have that kind of support at home, or that mentorship, so being able to come to the club and offer that consistency and face-to-face contact -- that's huge for them."

NAN Profiles on 03/12/2017

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