In February, I sat in a conference room inside the headquarters of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida thumbing through the bios of seven teenagers.
My fellow judges and I were asked to select a 2014 Youth of the Year.
When I first gazed upon Maryah Sullivan, the fire in her eyes darn near singed my skin.
That the 18-year-old from the Joe R. Lee branch in Eatonville was bright and articulate was apparent. Yet, what ultimately swayed us was the adversity that fueled her burning drive to succeed.
Like so many of the club's kids — who largely hail from families that subsist on annual household incomes of $30,000 or less — she was helped by a Boys & Girls Club that strives to ensure that a kid's hopes aren't consumed.
"Life wasn't about puppies, kittens and rainbows for me," Maryah wrote in her contest essay. "I was never the type of girl that believed in unicorns or magic because I lived and breathed harsh realities every day. I knew about survival."
That was the case from the moment Maryah was born to a teen mother who lost in the span of three years her mother and grandmother — her two models of motherhood.
For Maryah's mother, coming home from work only meant saying goodbye to her kids on the way to clocking in somewhere else.
That meant early maturation into surrogate motherhood for Maryah, charged with feeding, tutoring, and supervising her younger siblings.
As if that wasn't enough on immature shoulders, she had to fight other hardships as well:
Growing up without an involved dad in her life.
Weighing whether to behave as a regular teenager and splurge on a school-dance ticket or make the utilitarian choice and spring for "spaghetti, ground beef and an extra loaf of bread because leftovers were a lifesaver."
Picking up the emotional shards after watching police bum-rush the door of her home "because the man my mother loved, loved drugs more."
Wondering where she'd rest her head after a relative's criminal record triggered her family's eviction from public housing.
To invoke the poet Langston Hughes, life for her ain't been no crystal stair.
Yet, as a 6-year-old, she first found diversion, and then direction in a trailer that at the time served as Eatonville's Boys & Girls Club. When she needed fun, she found positive activities. When she needed homework help, she found a helping hand. When she needed something to silence her rumbling belly, she found a meal. And when she needed fatherly advice, she found surrogate dads.
And over time, she also found the leader in her. Serving in the organization's Torch, Smart Girls and Keystone clubs, she learned citizenship, performing "A Christmas Carol" at nursing homes and leading a beautification project in Eatonville.
"I'm trying to change the perception," she says. It's "a predominantly black neighborhood and crime rates are high, so when people think of Eatonville, they don't think of the positive."
A senior at Edgewater High with a 4.43 grade-point average, Maryah is going places. After winning the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida competition, sponsored locally by Kiwanis of Orlando, she grabbed the state Youth of the Year title, standing out among 100 teens from more than 30 Florida Boys & Girls Clubs. She next heads to Atlanta where she'll compete in the Southeast Regional Youth of the Year competition. Should her winning streak continue, she'd travel to Washington, D.C., to compete for the title of Boys & Girls Clubs of America's National Youth of the Year.
However that turns out, like any good leader, Maryah has a vision for the future. She'll attend the University of South Florida, majoring in pre-med. After medical school, she'll specialize in neurosurgery and work toward a cure, or at least a more effective treatment, for brain cancer.
I wouldn't bet against her.
"Boys & Girls Club gives you hope that against all circumstances you can still achieve your dreams and be successful," she tells me. "It's like the hole you have in your family that the Boys & Girls Club fills in."
Even in her words, you feel a fire that burns unquenched like the Olympic flame. It'll be another generation of Central Florida kids who will be enriched when she returns to pass the torch.