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Youth of the Year Finalists Defy Odds and Serve as Inspiration

September 30, 2013

By: Julio Suárez, Director of Diversity Outreach and Interim Director of Community Affairs and the Darden Foundation

Youth of the Year Finalists Defy Odds and Serve as Inspiration

Photo Credit:
  • Jesse Friedman (Boys & Girls Clubs of South Oakland County, Royal Oak, Mich.)
  • Yossymar Rojas (Boys & Girls Clubs of Capistrano Valley, San Juan Capistrano, Calif.)
  • Kiana Knolland (Boys & Girls Clubs of South Central Kansas, Wichita, Kan.)
  • Martaluz "Martha" Olang (Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford, Conn.)
  • Meeri Shin (Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, Tenn.)
  • RaShaan Allen (Military Youth of the Year)

These six finalists were chosen from a national pool of candidates who have overcome difficult odds and demonstrated exceptional accomplishments.

The evening before the awards ceremony, I had the pleasure of hosting the finalists for dinner at The Capital Grille, where I got to know more about them. I enjoyed hearing about their aspirations, majors, hometowns and time in D.C. Toward the end of dinner, I was asked by one of the BGCA representatives to present each finalist with the Presidential Volunteer Service Award from President Barack Obama that recognized their hard work in their communities. Each of them had volunteered at least 250 hours over the course of one year. It blew me away that they had given so much to their local communities at such a young age. They were already community leaders.

At the BGCA ceremony the next day the winner was announced, and I learned even more about these remarkable young adults. Each of them took the stage to talk about the hardships they endured, such as growing up in a gang-ridden community, losing almost everything in Hurricane Katrina, and having to watch over siblings after a parent abandoned the family. I knew they had overcome hardships, but I had no idea how much adversity they had really endured. Each of them not only defied circumstances while achieving academically, but they became upstanding citizens of their community.

Kiana Knolland, from Wichita, Kansas, just a short distance away from where I went to college at the University of Kansas, was named the 2013-2014 National Youth of the Year. She will serve as the official BGCA teen spokesperson, advocating for our youth. This is the top honor awarded by BGCA.

Kiana received more than $60,000 in college scholarships. As part of Darden Restaurants' Recipe for Success™ initiative to help provide access to postsecondary education, the Darden Foundation is proud to underwrite BGCA's Diplomas to Degrees program and sponsor the Youth of the Year awards. It's a partnership that we value throughout Darden, all the way to the highest levels of our company. Dave George, President of Olive Garden, serves as a BGCA Southeast Region Trustee.

I left our nation's capital inspired and amazed by these talented young adults who still have most of their college educations ahead of them. We'll all benefit from their contributions to society, and I cannot wait to see what more they will achieve.

By: Julio Suárez, Darden Restaurants

Julio Suárez is Darden’s Director of Diversity Outreach and Interim Director of Community Affairs and the Darden Foundation. In this role, Julio oversees programs and social investments that connect Darden and its restaurants with guests and community leaders and that contribute to the well-being of the communities served by Darden’s restaurants across the country.

Pictured: Julio Suarez hosts the Boys and Girls Clubs of America Youth of the Year Finalists at The Capital Grille. From left to right: Southeast Region Youth of the Year Meeri Shin; National Youth of the Year Kiana Knolland; Northeast Region Youth of the Year Martaluz Olang; Julio Suarez; Pacific Region Youth of the Year Yossymar Rojas; Midwest Region Youth of the Year Jesse Friedman and Military Youth of the Year RaShaan Allen.

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