Mardarius Small knows what it’s like to struggle and come out the on other side as a better man. It’s why he has chosen to share his inspiring story of survival and triumph with his local Boys & Girls Clubs members. Along with his dynamic personality, a kind heart and a willingness to lend a hand, it’s what has earned him the title of 2015 Youth of the Year at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor.
The mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor is, "To inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us the most, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens.” Every year the Boys & Girls Clubs of America reaffirms this mission by celebrating exemplary youth in Clubs across the nation with the Youth of the Year program. The Youth of the Year journey begins locally when youth, nominated by Club staff and peers, accept the challenge to rise above their circumstances and make positive changes in their lives, Club, and community.
A senior at Dream Academy, 18-year-old Mardarius was not always the model student he has become since joining Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he lost his way in high school—failing and skipping classes until he stopped attending school altogether. As a pastor’s son, he stopped going to church with his family. The outlet for his anger was usually aimed at his parents as he started getting into trouble with his friends. "I was homeless at one point during high school because of my behavioral issues. It led to me being put out of my home and placed in a juvenile detention center for one year and four months. My feelings of being alone, with no support, made me reevaluate my behavior and academic situation.”
His decision was to remove the bad influence in his life and live with his grandparents in Benton Harbor. It was there he received valuable moral support while being pushed to set goals and create a path to achieve them. After meeting his education goals, Madarius plans to enlist in the United States Air Force—following in the footsteps of his grandfather.
Distancing himself from his former friends meant making new ones, but this time he sought people who would help him accomplish his goals. "Several days a week I would attend the Boys & Girls Clubs, not knowing anyone or not being too familiar with how the Club worked. I observed kids coming in and out, going to different programs, and eating a fantastic dinner. I decided to step out and make this Club experience a good one. When I made the first step, it seemed that everything else fell into place.”
His time at the Club has helped Mardarius become a leader. "Planning, decision making, and contributing to the Club were fun things for a kid. It made me feel important,” he explains. "I was a person who my friends and family could be proud of.”
Teen Center staff at the Boys & Girls Clubs know that he’s become a confident leader. "Mardarius is usually the first Club member in the building, ready to greet staff and assist wherever there’s a deficiency. His work with our Keystone Club (a leadership group with a focus on academic success, career preparation and community service) has bonded the group for years to come,” says Unit Director Jeffrey Booker.
"We are all proud of Mardarius,” says Chief Executive Officer, Brian Saxton. "He exemplifies what can be achieved at the Clubs. He’s put in a lot of hard work with the help of our staff. He’s turned his grades around and set a new future for himself. Through sharing his story and his volunteer outreach with homeless youth, he’s helping our other members see a great future as well.”