Not knowing how to react when the governor announced him as the Maryland Youth of the Year, Najee Banks just stood there and later recalled, “I had to let it sink in.”

But he strolled to the podium to read his acceptance speech with such confidence that no one would have guessed winning the Boys & Girls Club of America (BGCA) state competition came as a surprise to him.

“He was so cool and calm like ‘I do this all the time,’” said Deborah Tyson, unit director of the Franklin Square BGC of Baltimore. “The governor said, ‘Did somebody tell you you were going to win?’ He said, ‘No, they just told me to be prepared.’”

The BGCA Youth of the Year award is the highest honor a BGC member can receive and recognizes children for their sound character, leadership skills and community service while overcoming personal obstacles. Banks, 16, took home the title earlier in the month and hopes to win the regional competition in July.

An honor roll 11th-grader at Edmondson Westside High School, Banks is a fourth- generation Franklin Square BGC member and has been active in the club for 10 years. When he is not participating in afterschool activities — such as practicing six self-taught instruments during band— he regularly mentors and tutors younger BGC members.

“There’s a lot of bad things around here — gangs, dudes on the streets, drugs,” he said, referring to the neighborhood surrounding the BGC at 215 N. Calhoun St.

“ definitely gave me a place to go instead of just hanging around outside. I didn’t want to do anything bad so I’d just come here and have fun.”

Banks also had the protective watch of his grandmother, who ensured he didn’t fall victim to the pressures of inner city life. Unabashedly, Janet Flemings said she didn’t let her grandson outside.

“This has been his saving grace,” she said of the BGC while wiping tears from her eyes. “He’s a good kid, very respectful and well-mannered.”

Banks selected media and communications as his trade at Edmonson, but plans to combine his love for music and history at St. Mary’s College by becoming a “musical archaeologist.” He sings, learned the saxophone in ninth grade, is beginning to play the drums and taught himself to play the piano, guitar, bass and flute.

“I’m going to be an archaeologist with a platinum album,” he said.

But in the mean time, he is remaining hopeful about winning the regional Youth of the Year competition in New York City this summer. He will be up against youth from other states in the BGCA’s northeast region. If named the winner, he will receive a $10,000 college scholarship and advance to the final phase of the contest in Washington, D.C., where President Obama will install the national victor in the Oval Office.

“I don’t want to sound cocky and say, ‘Oh, we got this’ but…,” Banks began.

“But we’ve had the vision,” Flemings finished. “My dream woke me up, of him shaking President Obama’s hand and getting that reward.”

 

MelanieR.Holmes

AFROStaffWriter