Recently recognized as the Military Region Youth of the Year, 17-year-old Ashley McCarty, of Roy, admits she would have laughed if someone suggested five years ago she would one day be representing military youth in the region.
Several years ago, McCarty was extremely shy, but enjoyed participating in hiking and recreational activities. When her dad asked if she wanted to get involved in the youth center at Hill AFB, with clubs that hosted several adventurous activities, she didn’t think twice about participating.
Her first day, though, wasn’t easy. “I walked into the youth center and cried because I was so scared. I didn’t talk to anyone the whole week, and if anyone talked to me, I would get embarrassed,” McCarty said. “I just focused on the hikes and adventures, but the kids made me feel comfortable because military kids were just so accepting and interested in getting to know who I was because they have been there.”
Cherokee Johnson, director of the Hill AFB Youth Program, remembers McCarty’s first experience at the youth center. “She did actually cry when she was here on her first day,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think she would come back because she was so scared, but this program is such a confidence builder for kids. Sometimes kids don’t realize they are making a difference and that this club has done something for them, but it’s truly a journey.”
McCarty credits coming out of her shell to participating with the Keystone Teen Club the past five years and then becoming president of the Youth Program at Hill AFB, which is affiliated with the Boys and Girls Club of America, the last two years. Her experience shaped her essays and speech required for competing in the competitions. For the past two years, McCarty was the winner of the Military Youth of the Year for the state of Utah, winning a $5,000 scholarship each time.
After competing recently at the regional level in San Diego against six other Military Youth of the Year representing their states, McCarty was honored as the Regional Military Youth of the Year, representing the entire Pacific region. McCarty received a $40,000 scholarship and is now preparing to compete in the national event in Washington, D.C., in September.
“When I tell people my story, I focus on what the club has done for me, considering where I started, not being able to talk to anyone, all the way to being excited beyond belief to speak in front of hundreds of people,” McCarty said. “I tell people that if they are given an opportunity, that they should go for it. Nobody said it would be easy for me, but the Boys and Girls Club has made me confident and opened new doors. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was hard not to fall in love with it once I got going.”
Johnson says the key to McCarty’s success was her personality and drive. “In order to win, you’ve got to want to do this in order to be successful. Being driven is the key, and we have a whole room full of them just like her,” Johnson said. The group is working to prepare the next batch of students for next year’s competition.
Hill AFB has had two state winners in the past who went on to compete at the regional level, but McCarty is the first to win the regional award. Until four years ago, military youth competed against traditional clubs, but many local leaders spoke up and suggested that since military youth have a unique experience, they should be allowed to compete against other military youth.
“We felt our kids needed a different category than the traditional club. Our kids are struggling, too, with deployments and moving all of the time, so we want to celebrate what our kids have done and not dwell on their past, like what McCarty has accomplished since she has been a part of this program.”