North Thurston High School student Daniela Suarez was recently named the 2015 Pacific Region Military Youth of the Year.
The Boys and Girls Club of America competition has earned 16-year-old Suarez $45,000 of scholarship money so far.
She leaves Saturday for the national competition in Washington, D.C., where she has the chance to win an additional $100,000.
“It’s amazing. I’m so grateful,” Suarez said.
The teen frequently visits the McChord Field and Hillside youth centers on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Charissa Lizama, Hillside Youth Center program manager, described Suarez as academic, driven and family-oriented.
“Her dream is to go to college and not have her parents struggle a lot to pay for her,” Lizama said. “This Military Youth of the Year thing is a really big deal. It’s one of the most esteemed awards the BGCA awards.”
Lizama said the youths are first gathered from the club level. They need to have been a member for at least a year and be involved with activities.
BGCA accepts applications, which include five or six essay questions. Once accepted, the youths give a speech of exactly 3 minutes.
Suarez had to speak about a struggle in her life. Suarez, whose family moved to the U.S. from Peru when her father joined the military, chose to speak about having to learn English.
“I didn’t know English, so I got bullied a lot. After my dad went into the military we moved so much and not speaking English made it extra hard to adjust,” she said. “It was a big struggle for me.”
She was enrolled in English Language Learners classes, for which she received further teasing from her classmates. But she studied hard and eventually tested out of ELL.
She said her involvement in BGCA and other youth programming at Joint Base Lewis-McChord helped her to grow into who she is today.
There, she learned how to stay healthy, how to make good choices and about college preparation. She also developed her skills in community service and leadership.
“My club helped me to open up. To be talkative, outgoing and optimistic. My youth centers gave me so much opportunity and it really changed my life,” she said.
First she became JBLM Military Youth of the Year, then Washington Military Youth of the Year.
After winning the state competition Suarez went to the regional competition in San Diego, where she won on July 28.
To prep, Suarez underwent many mock interviews and practice speeches with captains, majors and youth center staff on base.
Lizama said this was a struggle, because Suarez also had to balance school work.
“She thinks a lot about her academics,” Lizama said. “But we needed her here.”
Suarez is in the honors society at her school and maintains a 3.85 grade point average.
North Thurston high school principal Steve Rood said Suarez is a role model.
"We are so proud of Daniela and her service to the community,” Rood said. “When our students receive honors like this it speaks to our school’s dedication to our community, our military families and our country. Our goal is to not only graduate great students but great citizens.”
Suarez hopes to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy after high school and become an astronautic engineer.
“To me this really means that I finally was able to overcome a lot in my life,” she said. “I get to take everything my club taught me and I’m ready to give back by being their spokesperson.”