Celebrating Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s National Youth of the Year Winners: Then and Now

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Last October, Boys & Girls Clubs of America announced the 2023 winner of its prestigious National Youth of the Year recognition! A lead sponsor of this inspiring program since 2011, Toyota is thrilled to congratulate the newest honoree. We also caught up with two alumni to hear all about their journeys since being named National Youth of the Year and where they are now!

Alejandra Llanos, 2023

At a star-studded fall gala in New York City, Alejandra Llanos was named Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s 2023-2024 National Youth of the Year!

“It was absolutely crazy. I didn’t know what I felt exactly, but I wanted to cry. Winning the national title is a huge deal for my community back home in McAllen, Texas, because nobody there has ever won it before. Just knowing I was able to reach that point was incredible,” Alejandra recalls in a soft-spoken yet confident voice.

National Youth of the Year is Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s premier recognition for teens who have made outstanding contributions to their family, school, community and local  Club while overcoming personal obstacles. Honorees are awarded a $50,000 scholarship, a brand new Toyota Corolla, and a Kohl’s shopping experience. They also step into the role of national teen spokesperson and advocate, representing over 3.3 million kids and teens across the nation.

Alejandra’s is the 13th Corolla that Toyota has awarded to a National Youth of the Year winner since 2011.

“Alejandra and all the past winners of National Youth of the Year are truly an inspiration to young people across the nation. Toyota is proud to work with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to celebrate and recognize these outstanding youth leaders,” says Robyn Johnston, Strategic Partnerships Manager, Toyota.

Raised by a hardworking single mother, Alejandra found inspiration in her mom's resilience as an immigrant, and through her involvement at Boys & Girls Club of McAllen, became driven to take on leadership roles. As class treasurer and student body president, Alejandra honed her leadership skills and managed budgets, preparing her for a future in public service and positioning her as a role model to teens nationwide.

“I am looking forward to meeting the youth across America and getting to know them and what their hopes and dreams are. I want to tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid to go out and show the world who you are,’” Alejandra says with a smile.

Brianna Parker, 2021

1) Brianna Parker at the 2023 National Youth of the Year gala in New York. 2) Brianna Parker with Boys & Girls Club of Bristol CEO Jay Maia. [also at the gala] 3) Brianna Parker with Jim Clark, the CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of America. [also at the gala]

Taking a break between her college classes one afternoon, 2021 National Youth of the Year Brianna Parker caught up with us from behind the wheel of her (parked) Toyota Corolla!

“I love my car,” a beaming Brianna says. More than most people, Brianna understands the importance of having a car that’s not only her own, but also makes her feel safe. As a teenager, her living situation was disrupted by her family’s struggles with addiction, and she found herself briefly homeless, couch-surfing with friends and even living in a car. Fortunately, Brianna’s local Boys & Girls Club in Bristol, Connecticut, was able to help her find stable housing and food assistance. But her experiences made receiving her Corolla all the more meaningful.

“Getting my Toyota Corolla has meant the world to me. For me, my car is my safe place, and this car makes me feel incredibly safe,” Brianna says grinning ear to ear.

In her term as National Youth of the Year Ambassador, Brianna remembers being uplifted and inspired each time she met a young person who remarked that they saw her as “someone who perseveres.” Indeed, if one word could describe Brianna, it might well be “perseverance.”

After being named National Youth of the Year, while a freshman at Central Connecticut State University, Brianna lost her grandmother and father within two days of each other. Soon she found herself failing her classes as well. But once again, Brianna’s Boys & Girls Club of Bristol family came through for her with unwavering support, from helping her plan her grandmother’s memorial to getting her extra tutoring that helped her lift her GPA and stay in college.

“People think of the Boys & Girls Club as just an after-school program, but they’re really so much more. My club has been there for me since childhood and now into adulthood. The staff are so caring and supportive and really give you a shoulder to lean on when you’re going through challenges,” she says.

Brianna hopes her story shows young people that even for the winner of a prestigious national youth title, life’s road will always have bumps. But it’s how you navigate those bumps that counts.

Today, the National Youth of the Year alumna is more than halfway through her undergraduate degree in social work at Central Connecticut State University. Her National Youth of the Year scholarship pays for her rent, and she plans to save the rest for graduate school. Inspired by her lifelong connection to the Boys & Girls Club, Brianna hopes to one day work with children. She still frequently drops in on the staff and kids at her club in Bristol, and she even completed a social work internship there.

For today’s youth, Brianna has a clear message: “Keep trying to find something that inspires you and that you’re passionate about. Work towards it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Just keep trying to change the world and things around you for the better. I want to say thank you to Toyota for giving me this car and for making it possible for me to get from place to place. I’m thankful that the Club and Toyota were there for me.”

Malachi Haynes, 2018

1) Malachi Haynes speaking at the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver's 2023 Youth of the Year gala. 2) Malachi Haynes with his mother, Debra, at his 2023 graduation from Colorado State University. 3) Malachi Haynes with his Corolla after winning 2018 Youth of the Year.

For Malachi Haynes, the highlight of being named National Youth of the Year wasn’t meeting Denzel Washington or Los Angeles Clippers point guard Russell Westbrook. It was getting to talk about those incredible experiences with the kids he mentored in the reading program he co-founded back in his hometown of Denver, Colorado.

“For them, the word ‘college’ isn’t even in their vocabulary. Now they think it’s all about meeting your favorite basketball players,” Malachi says with a laugh. “But if that’s what it takes to get these kids to think differently about what is attainable, about what their life after high school might look like, that’s ok with me!”

In becoming National Youth of the Year, Malachi wanted to be, as he puts it, “a figure of hope” to kids growing up as he did, in places where opportunities and positive role models for youth are often scarce. Today, he has clearly met that goal. Malachi recently became the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree in health and exercise science from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He now works as an exercise physiologist in Denver, where he lives with his mom, Debra, and his American bully dog, Breezy, whom he describes as a “95-pound lap dog.” He also just submitted applications to graduate school for a doctorate in occupational therapy.

Malachi is grateful to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, who provided a tremendous support system for him in his youth and even during college. “I had people in my corner who saw something in me that I hadn’t seen yet. They believed in me when there were plenty of times I didn’t believe in myself,” he recalls.

He also credits the National Youth of the Year scholarship for allowing him to focus on school “without having the financial burden on me.” And the Toyota Corolla came through for him in a way he never could have expected.

“I feel like it was destined. Three days before I left for college, my car broke down on the side of the highway. It was my mom’s car, and she was letting me take it. Then I was named National Youth of the Year and got the Corolla. It’s amazing how easy and effective that car has made my life.”

Malachi’s mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago. Having the Corolla allowed him to easily make the 90-minute trip to see her when he was still living on campus, whether she needed help getting to a plasma infusion or just wanted to visit with Breezy. It gives Malachi peace of mind knowing he’ll be able to rely on the car again for regular visits home if he returns to campus for his doctorate.

In the meantime, he still keeps in touch with his former Club and many of the youth he mentored. He recognizes that he is in a unique position to reach these kids in ways that not many others can.

“Kids in my community need someone to believe in. You can hear every day that college is important, but if you don’t trust the messenger, how far will you take their word for it? Seeing me experience a little success in college has made them feel like this is not too far-fetched for them. I’m a firm believer that they can do whatever they put their mind to.”