NORTH CENTER — A short video clip of Shakhari Edwards' acceptance of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago Youth of the Year award conveys a lot about why the 17-year-old was chosen.
Her mentors at the Cotter Club, a Boys & Girls Club within the North Side's Lathrop public homes, call the former Lathrop Homes resident humble, yet confident, outspoken and gracious. Edwards can be seen crying tears of joy as she began her acceptance speech for the 67-year-old annual award in front of nearly 1,000 people, including friends, family and some of the city's most influential leaders.
Edwards was left speechless by the honor, given this week at the Navy Pier Grand Ballroom, but the cheering crowd filled the silence.
"I just couldn't get the words out; it was so overwhelming," she said. "It just felt good to look out at the people supporting me ... but I wanted to thank all the other candidates as well, because we're all winners."
Edwards, a senior at North-Grand High School, has attended the Cotter Club for about a decade, gaining a base of support and social programs that led her to being named the club's Youth of the Year earlier this week — but it wasn't long ago that Edwards and her mentor, Marlon Finley, agreed she was in need of an attitude adjustment.
Edwards' childhood in the Lathrop Homes left her with a sense of community and perseverance, she said, but it also led to encounters with gangs, violence and a tragedy that changed her life.
In 2008, her 20-year-old brother Aramis Edwards was murdered when two bullets struck him in the chest as he rode his bike in Logan Square. Shakhari was 12 years old at the time; she said she didn't understand her loss until the day of the funeral.
"He'd be proud of me," she said Friday. "I remember one time when I told him I didn't like school, he said, 'I never thought I'd hear you say that.'"
"He motivated me to do better, so I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps," Edwards wrote in the text to her acceptance speech. "I know I am capable of accomplishing any goal I set forth. I will make myself, my family, and my Boys and Girls Club proud, but most importantly, I will make my brother proud."
Finley, teen reach coordinator at the Cotter Club, said he's seen the change in Edwards firsthand over the last 10 years.
"Even though she grew up in a lower income neighborhood she didn't take that and say, 'This is what I have to do,'" he said. "You have a lot of kids that, when they hit obstacles, they move backward, but she shines the most when she has to overcome obstacles."
"She's confident about her beliefs and she's not afraid of being different."
She's also running a 3.9 GPA at North-Grand High School, she's a National Honor Society member and she's on her way to college in June to study pediatric nursing.
"You can only hold your head up and do what you need to do," she said Friday, sounding like a seasoned adult. "I feel accomplished — I never though I'd be the face of anything."
"It wasn't just about winning, it was the whole process."
That process, like other successful Boys and Girls Clubs youth, involved "following their dreams and goals," according to Finley.
Edwards was honored along with seven other teens Tuesday. She'll receive two round-trip tickets from United Airlines and a $500 BMO Harris gift card for college expenses. She'll also be named a "Phoenix Rising Star" and will spend a day of professional mentoring at the University of Phoenix downtown headquarters.