CHEYENNE – Confident. Caring. Compassionate. Determined.
That’s how Riley-Jayne Anderson, runner-up for the Wyoming Youth of the Year award, described herself Tuesday morning in the state Capitol rotunda.
“I wasn’t always this way,” Riley-Jayne, a freshman at Cheyenne’s East High, told an audience of about 50 public officials, parents and community members who were there to hear who won the statewide award out of four finalists. “The Boys and Girls Club helped me figure out who I am.”
The Youth of the Year award is sponsored by the Wyoming Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs and comes with a college scholarship.
“All of the contestants this year were outstanding. It was a close competition,” said Trent Carroll, chief operating officer for the Wyoming Department of Education.
He helped select the winners of this year’s contest and looked for attributes like “leadership, community service and a commitment to a healthy lifestyle.” Contestants were required to submit essays, sit for an interview and deliver a speech “without any notes or props,” Carroll said.
Judges also paid special attention to how each applicant has overcome personal challenges. That’s something Riley-Jayne knows all about.
“Statistically speaking, I should not have a child that is this amazing and successful,” said Anderson’s mother, Kristen-Erin Balderaz, who was a teenager when her now-14-year-old daughter was born. Riley-Jayne disagreed, crediting her mom with showing her “how important it is to care for other people.”
Nonetheless, Balderaz, who is a single parent of four children, first brought Riley-Jayne to the Boys and Girls Club of Cheyenne a few years ago because she was reassured to know that through the club “there are so many people who are invested in my children’s growth.”
Riley-Jayne was skeptical at first. “I didn’t really want to go,” she said. “I thought it was a day care.”
But Boys and Girls Club, which offers after-school youth enrichment programming and matches students with mentors, ended up being so much more than a day care.
“They have lots of different opportunities to learn a lot of different life skills,” said Riley-Jayne, whose cherry-red jumpsuit made her stand out in the sea of black blazers and navy slacks buzzing around the Capitol.
By far, the most important of the skills Riley-Jayne’s picked up “is believing in myself.” She’s infused that confidence into her community service work as a volunteer at local elementary schools and as a mentor to younger members of the Boys and Girls Club.
“I have seen her blossom from a very quiet girl into a powerhouse of a young lady,” said Wendy Fanning, director of development for the Boys and Girls Club of Cheyenne. Fanning has mentored Riley-Jayne for the past two years, and was one of the people who encouraged the high-schooler to apply for the Youth of the Year award.
“She’s such an inspiration for young girls who maybe don’t know their way yet,” Fanning said. “She is a voice for our club. She really understands what the club has done for her.”
As runner-up, Riley-Jayne received a total of $1,000 in scholarships, which she plans to use toward the cost of studying social work at the University of Wyoming.
For now, though, the young woman who was once “scared of speaking out” has a message for other kids who might be struggling with similar obstacles: “I am just a girl from Cheyenne, Wyoming,” she said. “But Boys and Girls Club has empowered me to use my voice and be the change I want to see.”