Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Edison series.
Damarion Johnson, a 15-year-old Edison resident, dances hip hop mixed with his own special brand of freestyle and posts his videos on YouTube.
But it wasn’t until he was nominated as the Kalamazoo Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year that he applied some of those performance skills to a live audience.
Along with 14 other nominees from around Michigan, Johnson presented a speech to a panel of judges in Southfield this March. After learning about the nomination, Damarion spent several months preparing and honing his speech with the help of his Boys and Girls Club mentor, Matt Forkin, Director of Education and Career Development. For many of the participating youth, the honor is a first opportunity to be a part of a rigorous process that includes essay writing, prepping, speech writing, and presentation.
“It was one of the best moments I’ve ever had,” says Damarion, a freshman at Loy Norrix High School. “I got to see that emotion of people I probably won’t see for the rest of my life. It made me want to do more.”
Youth of the Year is an annual national Boys and Girls Club honor bestowed on a member who embodies qualities of academic excellence, healthy living, community service and leadership. Local Boys and Girls chapters, such as Kalamazoo’s, send nominees from Michigan and Ohio to a regional competition. Damarion, says Forkin, was a natural choice for the honor.
“Damarion is a skilled writer, especially for a freshman,” says Forkin. “He is able to express his thoughts and ideas on paper in ways that a lot of adults can’t. The judges responded well to that.” Forkin says Damarion was also chosen for his “soft skills,” such as composure, poise, positivity, and maturity.
The process of preparation involved writing, editing, and practicing his speech, as well as working on mannerisms and bearing over several months. “When I first heard about (the nomination), I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t much of a public speaker,” says Damarion. “But over time, it turned out I liked it a lot.
“I talked mainly about my life, everything I’ve gone through in the past,” says Damarion, who was born in Chicago, but lives now in Edison. “Some of the stuff most people wouldn’t be able to get through,” he says, such as a time he spent in foster care. “I’m very selective about what I let in. I just let the good things in and build off that.”
Damarion credits his mother, Stacey Johnson, and the people and programs at the Boys and Girls Club, which has been a catalyst and a haven, teaching him financial, leadership and social skills, along with exposure to arts and recreational activities. “The club experience isn’t the same for any two people,” says Forkin, “and I’m just glad we’ve been able to maximize Damarion’s experience.”
Forkin says he often learns more in the process as a mentor than the youth do. “We spent hours and hours together,” says Forkin. “Damarion’s story is about resilience. When you spend that much time with someone and have deep-rooted conversations, it makes you self-reflect.”
Forkin adds that Damarion is fortunate to have a mother, “who never quits.” Johnson is a single mother, says Forkin, but “you wouldn’t know it by the way Damarion presents himself. She’s there. She’s there.”
Damarion, whose interests include reading, writing, basketball, art, and hip-hop dancing, hopes to be nominated and compete again next year in Youth of the Year. He’d like to apply what he’s learned and win regionals.
“It was invigorating seeing the speeches of other competitors before me,” Demarion says. “Before I got up there, it felt nerve-racking. But when I got up there, it went really well.”
His advice to other youth who might be facing difficult times is to stay the course. “Keep yourself up and don’t listen to anyone’s assumptions about how you’re living or how things are going in your life,” he says. “That’s what’s worked for me.”
Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in many local publications and her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review and West Branch, among others. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Edison.
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Edison” series amplifies the voices of Edison Neighborhood residents. Over three months, Second Wave journalists will be embedded in the Edison Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here
or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here
For more Edison coverage, please click here