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How this teen went from not fitting in to winning Youth of the Year
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Jonlyn Forest, right, is hugged by Jaiyah Stringer, left, and Dionte Daniel Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020 after The Boys and Girls Clubs of Lanier announce Forest as its Youth of the Year during a luncheon at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center. Stringer and Daniel were finalists in the competition. - photo by Scott Rogers

When Jonlyn Forest started her freshman year at Gainesville High School, she found herself struggling to fit in.

“I didn’t have all the newest things,” Jonlyn said. “I didn’t have all the newest clothes. I was different. I’d get anxious when somebody pointed out that I was different.”

After joining the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier, Jonlyn, who is now a sophomore, saw the power in her differences and used it to become a leader among her peers. 

On Wednesday, Feb. 19, Jonlyn was named the 2020 Youth of the Year for the Boys & Girls Club of Lanier at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center in Gainesville.

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Jonlyn Forest gets emotional Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020 after The Boys and Girls Clubs of Lanier announce her as its Youth of the Year during a luncheon at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

 The two finalists were 17-year-old Dionte Daniel and 15-year-old Jaiyah Stringer, both of which attend Gainesville High.

A panel of 10 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.  

One by one, the three teens spoke before a gathered audience on Wednesday. They each exposed their hardships and shared how the nonprofit helped transform their lives. 

When she first entered the organization’s Teen Center, Jonlyn said she quickly realized that she could let her walls down and be herself.

“At the Boys & Girls Club, I didn’t have to look or act in a certain manner to be embraced,” she said. “Everyone that goes to the Boys & Girls Club is made to feel loved, accepted and important.”

Jonlyn said her confidence grew after meeting peers who had similar struggles. She said the Teen Center gave her a purpose in life, which is to be successful and a leader. 

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The Boys and Girls Clubs of Lanier Youth of the Year finalist Dionte Daniel prepares to deliver his speech Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, during a Youth of the Year luncheon at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

Antoine Nealey, the director of the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Teen Center, said he witnesses Jonlyn being a leader on a regular basis. 

“A lot of kids look up to her and ask her for advice,” Nealey said. “She’s very strong-willed. If you tell her that there’s a wall in front of her, she’s going to find a way through it.”

As the Youth of the Year, Jonlyn received a $1,000 scholarship to put toward college. She will now go on to represent the Boys & Girls Clubs 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, Jonlyn said she plans on pursuing a degree in cardiovascular technologies from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. 

“I just love the heart, so I just wanted to get the medical understanding of it,” Jonlyn said. 

The $1,000 amount for Youth of the Year winner is made possible through the Duane Hinshaw Scholarship. 

Hinshaw, the former CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier, said his coworkers started the scholarship fund once he retired from the organization’s southeastern headquarters. 

“I can’t tell you how special this is,” Hinshaw said while choking up before the audience. “We need your help to keep this thing going. I’m going to be sure that it keeps going to some degree, but with your help we can do this at a much higher level and ensure that kids have an opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

For more information about the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier, visit boysgirlsclubs.com or call 770-532-8102.

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The Boys and Girls Clubs of Lanier Youth of the Year finalist Jaiyah Stringer delivers a speech Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, during a Youth of the Year luncheon at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center.
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