Introducing Manny Acosta, 2015 North Carolina Youth of the Year

I was once a shy boy too nervous to talk. I never really understood the world. Learning English when I started elementary school was really hard for me - I wasn’t comfortable with the language. My confidence gradually declined. I became what most people would call an introvert.

My father noticed me coming home each day after school to just lay in bed. He asked me, “How come you’re never with any friends like your brother?” I explained to him that I was shy. I felt awkward. But then he told me a story about his childhood that changed my whole perspective.

My father was forced to work at a very young age. He missed out on being a child. He told me that I should make something out of my youth because this was my chance to create memories to treasure as I aged. “The choice is yours to be happy,” he said. I will never forget his words. They motivated me to get out there and be more social.

Right before my 9th grade year at Henderson County Early College, my brother started going to the Boys & Girls Club and invited me to go too. At first, I declined, but my parents urged me to reconsider. On the first day of school, I went. My first impression was that the Club was massive. I really admired its structure. I also looked everywhere, but none of the kids I saw looked like “bad” kids, which I had been warned against.

There was a feeling in my gut that this place was where I finally belonged, where I wouldn’t be judged. Everyone was one big family. After attending programs, I began to see that many Club kids were just like me. Maybe all they wanted was a friend. Like my father, maybe all they wanted was a childhood.

I eventually earned the opportunity to join Junior Staff, working with the Club’s youngest members. Even though some of them can be quite mischievous, there is never a day I would give this up. I am devoted to being their role model.

I believe that Club teens can play a big role as mentors to the younger kids, helping them stay on the right path. I can make a difference just by simply saying, “Hey,” or “How was your day?” I also believe teaching kids to be generous can really make them change for the better. This is what my job at the Club gives to me. Getting a paycheck is simply a bonus.

The Club used to be a book that I judged. I first came thinking it would be boring or that it was a place where only “bad kids” attend. I will leave knowing that it is a one-of-a-kind book that shouldn’t ever be judged, only experienced.

Who could imagine that a place could make an everlasting change in an individual such as myself? Every day I go to the Club is a blessing. The Club kept me on the right path with making good choices, and it is my home away from home, a sanctuary, where I can be myself. A place of hope where I can come out of my shell.

A place for me to make a difference.

Emanuel “Manny” Acosta has been a Club member for four years and was recently named the 2015 Youth of the Year. A junior at Henderson County Early College, Acosta plans to pursue a career in Law Enforcement. He advances to the state Youth of the Year competition this April.