Local grad wins region Youth of the Year

HARLINGEN — Her life is a success story.

And Zena Nazar-Arocena told that story so well to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America she’s won the 2021-22 Southwest Youth of the Year.

“Who am I?” she asked in her award-winning speech which she shared earlier this month in a remote ceremony where she was announced the winner.

“One day an event occurred which would change the course of my life forever,” said Zena, 18. “I walked into the Boys and Girls Club filled with anxiety and anger. That was when the club director, Ms. Hilda, told me about the programs the club had to offer.”

Hilda Gathright is the long-time director at the LeMoyne Gardens Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen.

That first day of Zena’s new life was nine years ago. Since then, Zena has been an active member of the Boys and Girls Clubs. She has taken leadership roles in the Torch Club and Keystone Club, taught dance to youngsters, and participated in dozens of other activities.

“I have acquired so many skills, more than I ever imagined attaining this early in my life,” said Zena, a 2021 graduate of Early College High School.

“I was a creative person before,” she continued, “but I just didn’t have anywhere to harness that creativity. At the Boys and Girls Clubs I was pushed and motivated to do all the things I think I would never have been good at or things I would never have tried before.”

Her story so impressed the committee the host proudly announced her as the winner. Zena was in tears.

“I feel so blessed and honored to be a representative of an organization that has truly changed my life,” she said.

Her friend and mentor, Alma Dones, couldn’t say enough about Zena.

“It’s always a rewarding experience when we work with kids and see the impact the organization has on them,” said Dones, unit director at the Harry Nigro Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen.

“Through the Boys and Girls Clubs program many doors have opened for Zena and they will continue to open,” Dones said. “She has a very bright future ahead of her, and she’s going to accomplish big things.”

Earlier in the presentation, Zena spoke with great exuberance about her work as a junior staff member at the Boys and Girls Clubs.

“I have seen first-hand the difference mentoring can really make in a young person’s life,” she said.

Her platform as Youth of the Year will be addressing mental health.

“I think a lot of teens struggle with mental health and they struggle in silence because there’s no one they can talk to, someone that understands them,” she said. “As Youth of the Year I want to spread awareness so that it becomes normalized to get help if they’re struggling.”

Gerald Gathright, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen, was on the edge of his seat when Zena was announced the winner.

“That was one of the most exciting moments of my career,” he said. “I had one National Youth of the Year about 20 years ago. This ranks right up there for excitement and enjoyment and thrill for the child who has overcome a lot of obstacles in her life.”

She’ll compete in the national event in September in Washington, D.C., either in-person or remotely.

Obviously, her power to communicate is what made the grade for her – and it’s one of those skills she learned at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen.

“I can pretty much talk about anything if I focus,” she said. “I’ve just gathered so many communication skills, leadership skills, health and wellness, being a part of Healthy Habits and Triple Play.”

Triple Play is a health and wellness program of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America which promotes fun exercise. Zena at the moment was engaging a group of kids in a Triple Play activity.

“Right now we were actually doing a ‘Just Dance’ marathon,” she said. “I’ve been putting songs on the TV with the dancing videos. We dance every song and I give them a water break every two songs and then we get back and we start dancing again.”

Zena has seen a lot in her young life, working with kids in abusive circumstances. And that has become her passion.

“I plan on attending the University of Texas at Austin and being on a pre-law track so that I can become a child abuse lawyer,” she said. “I will be advocating for the kids who are being abused. I see it so much in the lives around me. I hate the way it affects kids, and it breaks my heart.”

Heartbreaking is the situation she plans to confront, and inspiring is her passion to confront it.

twhitehead@valleystar.com