Charisma Cheeks, 18-year-old East Hall High School student, transformed a painful part of her past into a motivator for her success.
On Wednesday, Feb. 6, Cheeks was announced as the 2019 Youth of the Year for the Boys & Girls Club of Lanier at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center in Gainesville.
The runner-up was 14-year-old Jonlyn Forest, and the finalists included 16-year-old Dionte Daniel and 14-year-old Alexis Rucker.
A panel of community leaders evaluated each teen based on their written essays, personal interviews and public speaking. The contestants were also judged on their demonstration of leadership, character, community service, academic excellence and a healthy lifestyle.
Before announcing Cheeks as this year’s winner, each nominated teen came before the crowd to share their stories.
Cheeks revealed that a week after being born, her mother died from an illness. She was raised by her mother’s best friend, Shannon Bell.
At the age of 9, Cheeks said she fully began to grasp the weight of her mother’s death. Cheeks said she felt robbed of the experiences she would never have with her mother.
Through a heaping amount of self-determination and the embrace of the Boys & Girls Club, she overcame her sense of emptiness.
“I don’t let that affect me now,” Cheeks said. “Now I’m better and I know that she’s watching me, and that I’m going to make her proud.”
Cheeks takes honors classes at her high school and is the president of the Keystone Club teen leadership program. She also volunteers to help younger Boys & Girls Club members with their homework and makes care packages for the local elderly through her church.
Steven Mickens, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Lanier, said Cheeks exemplifies what the organization wants for all of its young members.
“She’s an outstanding young lady,” he said. “Whatever challenges, whatever obstacles have come her way, she meets them head-on. The glass is always half-full, it’s never half-empty. She has a kindred spirit about herself that makes just being around her bring out the best in you.”
Bell, who raised Cheeks, said she was overwhelmed with pride when she heard her daughter’s name called for Youth of the Year. Bell said competing for the award was nothing new to Cheeks, since she regularly loves speaking and singing at her church.
Antoine Nealey, the director of the Boys & Girls Club’s teen center, said many of the other organization’s members look up to Cheeks.
“She’s very resilient, that’s her biggest characteristic,” he said. “She’s been through a lot in her life, and she’s always stayed positive about it ever since I’ve known her.”
Through winning the local Youth of the Year award, Cheeks received a $1,000 scholarship to put toward college.
She will now go on to represent the Boys & Girls Club of Lanier on the state level and compete against a new pool of students for a $5,000 scholarship.
When she graduates from high school, Cheeks plans on applying to the U.S. Air Force and to pursue a medical career.
Cheeks said she wants to explore the world, and feels as though the Air Force would be a great place to start.
“My book isn’t finished, and in all honesty, it’s just the beginning,” Cheeks said. “Someone needs to hear my story, so here it is. Never let the hurt define who you are. Let that be the reason for everything you’re doing.”