2012 National Youth of the Year and ACE of the Year Essays


America's Youth and Community Service: Working Magic in Your Community
By Russell L. Risden, 2012 National Youth of the Year

I got my shovel, put on old jeans, and my boots. I was going to bring back history. I marched with a spring in my step as I wandered through the fields of salt hay and marsh grass. It was hard to believe that only thirty years ago on this very spot stood a small farm. From what I had heard there had been goats, chickens, and horses. Now there was nothing, but a foundation, a rusty tractor, and rotted wood. I came to find out that time has a way of erasing events and stories. But, alas, I was there seeking to find another’s story and perhaps interwoven in that story I would find my own. At the same time I was volunteering my time to preserve the past and the memories of those who came before me in my hometown.

The year was 1940 and freshly build was a small farm overlooking a bay. For forty-four years the farmers lived on the land; working it and caring for it. By the 1980’s, though, new housing development encroached the little spread. The farm stood in stat; a symbol of the bygone days when there were open fields. As the generation who owned the farm aged so did the production of the old place. The tractor broke down after decades of work, and the weather had taken its toll on the homestead. In 1984 the end of an era was complete when a fire broke out and what was left of the farming era went up in flames.

Now, this is where I come into the story. My friend and I decided to volunteer to try to bring back not only the story of this farm, but also the stories of the other homesteads of our town. We spend hours researching in the county records office and the local historical society. We then visited the old farmland. We discovered an early 1900’s horse drawn mower, a 1945 Massy Harris Tractor, old glass bottles, rusted farming equipment, and traces of where different buildings once stood. We discovered values that seem to have disappeared from our culture. The values of following one’s dream, standing by what one says, and doing work that is worth doing. As we finish gathering the stories of those that came before us, we plan to donate a copy of our report to the historical society. It is our way of working magic in our community; so that others may come and see that the youth care about our town.

The story I have transcribed here is about believing in oneself and doing something meaningful with one’s life; whether this is volunteering to help others or following one’s dreams. I am part of the next generation and I have seen how my generation has worked to better our communities. I have seen youth volunteer to help rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. I have seen and been a part of efforts to help the elderly. I have seen how my generation has worked to better our communities. I have seen churches come together to help those in need. It is an awesome experience to be part of these efforts and see the next generation care about those around them and their communities. Just like the farmer who once volunteered to serve his country and then came home to serve his community, we are following in his footsteps and continuing his legacy of serving and volunteering.

I have had the opportunity to see today’s youth work. As Memorial Day approaches it is fitting that my generation remember those, like the farmer, who came before them and served their country. I am in the process of organizing a group of J.R.O.T.C. cadets from my high school to visit the local cemetery to place flags on local veterans’ graves. At each grave we will stop, place a flag, render a salute, and tell a story about the particular veteran buried there. One such man we will honor will be Thomas Gray who devoted his life to volunteer work in our community. In the early twentieth century he would volunteer his time to educate the local children on the history of our area. He was passing on his father’s generation’s legacy to the next generation. Like Tom, we are passing down his story to the next generation so that today’s youth may be inspired to live a life of service.

My generation has repeatedly volunteered to help their communities across our country. We have successfully carried on the legacy of service of those who have come before us. We have proved that a single person can make a difference in the world. If we continue to volunteer throughout our lives, one can rest assure that we will leave the world a better place.


About the Youth of the Year Award

Exchange honored the 2012 National Youth of the Year, Russell L. Risden at Session 4 on Saturday during the Convention. He received a $10,000 scholarship (sponsored by The National Exchange Club Foundation). Representing the New Jersey/New York District and the Exchange Club of Beach Haven, New Jersey, Risden is the 40th recipient of the award.

This young achiever has served as his class president for four years, has been awarded the Air Force Association J.R.O.T.C. Award for Leadership and has been appointed the overall Group Commander for his school’s J.R.O.T.C. Russell has been inducted into the National Honor Society, has achieved the rank of second-degree black belt, has restored a 19-foot mariner sailboat and has earned varsity letters for sailing and cross country.

In addition to these outstanding recognitions and accomplishments, Russell has taken a great interest the history of WWII. As a young scholar, this teen spent five years researching, writing letters and compiling his findings into a spectacular presentation focusing on the lives of veterans. With a goal of keeping these heroes’ legacies alive and paying respect to their great sacrifices, Russell took to the painstaking process of reconstructing these soldiers and sailors – and businessmen, lawyers, pastors and doctors – lives. By passing these stories along to surviving and future generations, Russell has realized his greatest accomplishment.

Russell has emerged as a leader through countless other passions, such as membership in a peer leadership program entitled “S.T.Y.L.E.” – Student Teambuilding Youth Leadership Experience; participation in his school’s Latin and Fishing Clubs, and Cross Country, Track and Sailing teams; as a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary; and as a volunteer with various historical, church and social organizations.

Across the country hundreds of young men and women are selected and honored monthly by local Exchange Clubs participating in the Youth of the Month program. District level competitions produce candidates entered in the national competition. Community service, innovative leadership and academic achievement top the criteria for selection. An outstanding field of 35 district winners were candidates for this year’s competition.


Striving for success
By Deongelo Quihuis, 2012 National A.C.E. Award Winner

Plans for my future…

My first step in being a responsible community member centers on my education. In order to give back I knew I had to be educated. It was my responsibility to finish my high school education on my own with no parental support. I know that in order to have a life that is always moving forward I needed to do my part.

I have just started to shape the world in which I live. It started at school with the Yellow Ribbon Project which deals with teen suicide and prevention. I because a part of the team that was trained by mental health professionals on how to talk to suicidal teens and give them some hope and alternatives. I lost a dear friend within the last year from suicide and have lived with the fact that maybe I could have helped if I could have identified the problem. I do not want anyone to have to go through those same feelings. It made me feel nervous to face my peers with my facts about suicide but once I got started I knew I had to do this. No matter how painful I needed to help someone else. If I could help someone else prevent a friend from committing suicide and if my being a role model helped then it was more than worth it.

This is the first step I have taken I being a community partner, but I know it will not be my last.


Events I am most proud of…

The events that I am most proud of all are involved with family. No matter the circumstances of my life I have always been focused on my family. I have lived with my father, then mother, then foster care, grandmother, and now on my own. I have always had a strong sense of family and truly believe that this is what has shaped me most in my life. I didn’t know my mom was my real mom until I was eight. Both my parents left me and spent time in jail, and now I am considered homeless. Instead of feeling sorry for myself I always tied to do my best, and always look forward. I did not know I had a grandmother until I was seven, and she is the one who instilled in me the qualities of character that I try to make the focus of my life.

I do not believe in excuses and at every age I have tried to be responsible. If you really want to make a difference in your family’s life or your life you can do it by yourself. You can do it through your own determination. It is hard for me to use the word proud in relation to my efforts, I see them as what a man is supposed to do, what everyone should do. I don’t see myself as anything special.



About the A.C.E. of the Year Award

Deongelo Quihuis is the 13th recipient of Exchange’s National A.C.E. of the Year Award (Accepting the Challenge of Excellence). He received a $10,000 scholarship from The National Exchange Club Foundation. The award recognizes high school students who have made a dramatic change in their attitude and performance sometime during their high school years. These students have overcome great physical, emotional or social obstacles, and have gotten themselves back on track toward a high school diploma. Deongelo Quihuis, who was sponsored by the Sierra Pacific District and the Exchange Club of Marysville, Calif., was one of 31 contestants vying for this year’s honor.

The A.C.E. Award competition includes two brief essays, one of which explains the student’s accomplishments. Additionally, the nominee is asked to write about their plans for the future.

This remarkable young man has faced great adversity throughout his young life, yet he has challenged himself to not only accomplish great things, but to help others in need. Described as “a quiet little boy with a bright smile and a kind heart,” Deongelo had attended nine schools and lived in at least three homes – including placement within the foster care system – by the fifth grade. Throughout these early years, Deongelo was excessively absent from school, often due to lack of transportation or because he frequently slept wherever the night left him. He was unaware of who his mother was until the age of eight and both his parents spent time in jail during his childhood.

As a true testament to the strength and resolve of the human spirit, Deongelo never questions his circumstances nor uses the lack of structure in his life as an excuse. Rather, Deongelo places great value on his relationship with his family and has become a resource for others by seeking training in a mental health program focusing on preventing teen suicide. Deongelo has also carved himself out as a friendly face to new students attending his alternative school and has helped create a drama-free safe haven for his peers.

Deongelo will attend his local community college in the fall, despite knowing that housing, transportation and finances will continue to be obstacles. He believes the first step in giving back to his community is a solid education.

Quite possibly the most telling sign of Deongelo’s character was his statement when he discovered he would be nominated for A.C.E. of The Year Award. “I am nothing special,” he said. “A lot of people have had it worse.”