Free State High School graduate Trei Dudley among 5 finalists for National Youth of the Year

Trei Dudley, 18, of Lawrence is one of only five candidates who could be named National Youth of the Year by the Boys and Girls Club of America and earn a $50,000 scholarship. In September, she will visit the White House and meet President Obama.

“I’m so excited. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” she said, during an interview Friday between Boys and Girls Club activities at Pinckney School.

The award celebrates youth who have overcome enormous odds and demonstrated exceptional character and accomplishments. There are 4,000 Boys and Girls Clubs nationwide that serve 4 million children and teens. The Lawrence club serves more than 1,200 youths with after-school and summer programming.

On Tuesday, Dudley was named Southwest Region Youth of the Year in Dallas after winning local and state competitions. She’s the first Kansas resident to be a finalist for the national award.

“We’re very lucky to have her,” said Erika Zimmerman, director of development for the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence. “She’s an outstanding staff member.”

The City of Lawrence has proclaimed June 12 as “Trei Dudley Day” to recognize her achievements.

Dudley said her adventure started with a nomination at the local level. For the competition, she wrote eight essays on topics such as schooling, community services and family. Then, she was interviewed by a panel of judges and gave a speech about what Boys and Girls Club means to her. At each competition, the same essays are used, but she has to give her speech and go through an interview process.

“I was super shocked,” she said, of winning the regional contest. “It was a huge competition and there were such amazing people competing for it.”

Dudley has been involved with Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence since she was kindergarten. She said her mother, Cathy Brittain, worked hard to raise her and her three siblings on her own, and there were times when life wasn’t easy. Dudley said the staff at Boys and Girls Club helped pull her through those times and she considered them a second family.

“They took me under their wing and I knew that I could always count on them. They were a big support system,” she said.

She fondly recalled spending time in the sixth grade with Laura Wagner, who was a staff member at the time and now is a program director. “It was just a rough time in my life and she would take me outside and we would walk around the field and talk the entire time,” she said.

Now, Dudley is a staff member for the Boys and Girls Club and hopes to have the same influence on youth.

“A lot of them go through the same things that I went through like witnessing abuse in the home or not having both of your parents or not living with your parents, and there are those who have both of their parents but they never get to see them because they are always working,” Dudley said. “They all go through different things. You just have to adapt and let them know that you are here to talk to.”

Among those that she has created a special bond with is shy Kylyn Jackson, 9, who is finding it tough to make new friends. Jackson leans on Dudley — or Miss Trei (pronounced Tray) as the kids call her — for support. Jackson considers Dudley a big sister and feels like she can tell her anything without being judged.

Not only is Dudley active in the Boys and Girls program, but in the community.

She volunteers at a local community center, church and a soup kitchen. She even became a certified volunteer for Family Promise, an agency that provides shelter, food and programs to help homeless families.

“I went once and I absolutely fell in love with the whole idea of it all,” she said of Family Promise. “It was an amazing experience.”

At Free State High School, she served as a board member of Can We Talk, a group dedicated to helping at-risk youth. She also was captain of the cheerleading squad and editor of the yearbook.

Dudley, who graduated in May, has earned a total of $11,000 in scholarships through the Boys and Girls Club competitions. She plans to attend the University of Arkansas and earn a degree in business management. She said the Boys and Girls Club focuses on helping students in elementary and junior high schools, so she would like to open a nonprofit organization that helps high school students. She would like to help them prepare for and transition into college.

While in Arkansas, she plans to remain actively involved in the Boys and Girls Club, but will miss her Lawrence students.

“Oh yeah, That’s going to be tough,” she said, as Daeciana Jaillite, 9, stood nearby. Then, the little girl spontaneously ran over to her and gave her a big hug.