Hart High School junior Hailu Waithaka is only the second Santa Clarita resident to receive the Los Angeles County Boys & Girls Clubs Youth of the Year Award, which the club has been giving for more than 70 years, according to officials.
The Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clarita Valley chose Waithaka as the 2022 Youth of the Year, said Matthew Nelson, CEO of the SCV club, and the L.A. County Boys & Girls Clubs chose Waithaka from 20 clubs in the county. The Youth of the Year program, Nelson added, is designed to promote and recognize service to the club and community, academic performance and contributions to family and home life by honoring outstanding club teens. Being named Youth of the Year is the highest honor a club member can receive.
“We couldn’t be prouder of Hailu and all that he has accomplished,” Nelson said. “Hailu is incredibly humble and kind. He has a generous heart and one of those smiles that lights up a room.”
According to a news release, Waithaka, 16, dreams of attaining a law degree from Stanford. He balances his role as vice president of the club’s Keystone teen leadership program with practices and games for his travel soccer team and school work. He also has a passion for helping others who are dealing with mental health challenges. He’s particularly interested in shining a light on mental health struggles in sports and ensuring that there are more resources for athletes to understand their emotions and how to seek support.
“The mental health crisis facing the youth of America today is not being addressed with enough support and urgency,” Waithaka said. “Mental health issues are being dealt with by individuals through bad coping mechanisms like drug abuse and isolation because of either a lack of resources or hesitancy to ask for help because of the stigma. What matters to me is advocating for eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health in relation to athletes and ensuring mental health resources are widely available to all young people.”
According to Matt Carpenter, the SCV club’s board president, it’s Waithaka’s endless optimism and hard work that make him such an exceptional human being.
“We had several teen members worthy of the award,” Carpenter said, “but Hailu really stood out. I want to applaud our amazing club staff for continuing to help develop and shape youth into the leaders of tomorrow right here in our Santa Clarita Valley community.”
Waithaka joined the Boys & Girls Club in 2017, according to Nelson, shortly after moving to Santa Clarita from Kenya. He discovered the club when he was a student at Placerita Junior High School and two friends were headed to the club across the street to finish their homework.
“They invited me in, and I was in awe,” Waithaka said. “There was so much to do, and all the children were happy and busy with homework, friendship and games. I went home that day and asked my mom to sign me up as a member.”
Nelson added that Waithaka has attended the club nearly every day since, learning the game of basketball, making new friends, getting help with homework and taking on a leadership role amongst his peers. Even during the pandemic, Nelson said Waithaka stayed connected with friends and staff through the club’s virtual program.
Waithaka was one of six candidates throughout the county nominated for this award.
“He went through three rounds of interviews, discussing leadership, personal growth and what matters to him,” said Dave Caldwell, spokesman for the William S. Hart Union High School District. “It’s a testament to Hailu’s great character that he won this award.”
Nelson said that club staff nominate kids from each of their programs, and that a panel of board members interviews those selected. That board chooses a winner based on how well candidates communicate their stories, which, according to Nelson, includes how the club has impacted their lives, how they’ve overcome personal obstacles and their vision of the future for themselves and the world.
“It is important that we recognize and celebrate the character and accomplishments of our young people,” Nelson said. “Hailu’s story is one of thousands. He is the voice for other children and teens who don’t have the words to share their story, are still facing tremendous challenges and need positive role models to look up to … We are excited to see all the amazing things he will do with his life.”
Founded in 1968, the SCV Boys and Girls Club helps local youth reach their full potential by providing a second home, supporting academic success and building leaders. Membership is $60 a year for the first child and $45 for each additional sibling. Scholarships are available. To get involved in the SCV Boys & Girls Club, go to scvbgc.org.