'Youth of the Year' shares story of abuse

March 30, 2013 9:24:27 PM PDT
Every year, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago choose an outstanding member to honor as Youth of the Year.

This time, the award goes to a young woman whose strength, courage and leadership put her ahead of the pack, but she says it's her club that deserves the praise.

There's never a shortage of fun and games at the Daniel A. Cotter Boys and Girls club. And for 13 of her 18 years, Evelyn Williams has been in the thick of it. Now she volunteers as a leader for younger children.

She grew up here in Chicago Public Housing's now mostly shuttered Lathrop Homes on the Northwest Side. She says it was club activities that often kept her mind off problems at home.

"When I actually came to the club I was so engaged in everything that was around me and I was in a positive environment that I didn't really think about what was going on at home until I was actually there," she said.

At a gala event where she received her award before 900 people recently, Williams shared an experience that some people never reveal.

"At the young age of ten I was sexually molested by a close family member,' she said at the event. "When I was faced with this obstacle I was unsure of how to handle my difficult situation. I did not have any close family members to talk to, but I did have the Boys and Girls Club to rely on as my refuge."

It was staff members at the club who first noticed a change in her behavior and convinced her to tell her mother. Marlon Finley says they are often first to spot trouble.

"By me being around them so long, I can tell when something is going on at home," Finley said. "I can pull them to the side and I've built enough trust with these kids who come through these doors where they can open up and talk to me about anything."

Now Williams says she shares her story freely in hopes of giving others the courage to do the same.

"With my Boys and Girls Club I was able to figure out that it wasn't my fault and there's someone out there with the same story as me and it's important to get it off your chest because it can do so much damage to the mind, physically, everything," she said.

Williams is ranked second in her graduating class and has a full scholarship to attend Central State University in Ohio this fall.

She will compete for the statewide title of "Youth of the Year" in Springfield next month. The national winner receives a $50,000 college scholarship.