Damaria Gurley has not let the obstacles she’s faced define her.
The Brunswick High School senior has chosen instead to grow from life’s challenges. And since the age of 6, much of that personal growth has taken place at the local Boys & Girls Club.
Gurley’s years of hard work came to fruition Tuesday when she earned the Youth of the Year title for the state of Georgia. She is the first member of the Boys & Girls Club of Southeast Georgia to earn the honor, which is the highest accolade the Boys & Girls Club offers.
“Our organization has been around almost 60 years … and we’ve never had a Youth of the Year winner for the state,” said Dayton Austin, director of operations at the Elizabeth F. Correll Teen Center in Brunswick. “So Damaria is our first. It’s a huge deal. In the Boys & Girls Club world, this is it. She’s done something remarkable and accomplished something really, really cool.”
Gurley was still reeling a bit Wednesday and feeling starstruck after her win.
“Before this accomplishment, this accolade, I’d never really given myself the credit for all the work that I was putting in,” she said.
The state competition took place Sunday through Tuesday in Atlanta. The trip also included visits to the State Capitol, where she met Gov. Brian Kemp, as well as Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Atlanta City Hall.
The contest itself consisted of going through interviews and giving a speech she wrote.
“The speech was a combination of what the club meant to you, your personal brand and how to describe yourself,” Gurley said.
The Youth of the Year award recognizes students who work hard, invest in themselves and demonstrate leadership in their schools, clubs and communities.
Gurley first competed against her peers in the Boys & Girls Club of Southeast Georgia and won Youth of the Year locally.
She now moves on to the southeast regional competition, which will take place in June.
Gurley represents thousands of students in this community who’ve attended the local Boys & Girls Club, Austin said.
“We always we try to send the kid that we feel like is the best example of what we do,” he said.
Gurley stays busy outside of the club playing sports, attending church and working. After graduation, she plans to attend college and pursue a degree in criminology and to join the United States Navy.
She said she always thought her high school graduation would be her first great accomplishment.
Gurley grew up in what she described as a violent community. She lost many loved ones when she was young. She also contracted meningitis and was told by doctors that she’d never play sports, or possibly never walk, again.
“I’ve overcome so many people telling me that I wouldn’t be anything … ‘You’re going to go to jail, you’re going to be like your siblings, you’re not going to really amount to much,’” she said. “So I’ve been able to not only make them wrong but show myself it’s possible, because I always believed that it was.”
Her speech in the competition focused on the challenges she’s faced in her life.
“I was basically just speaking on how, when you’re young and you go through so much pain, you kind of get used to it … You’re so used to pain that you know it’s going to happen again,” she said. “That’s what you’re counting on. So I kind of grew up that way.”
Time spent at the Boys & Girls Club, though, gave Gurley the encouragement she needed to pursue her passions.
She joined the Terrell Thomas Center location at the age of 6, then moved to the Needwood Middle School location before becoming a member at the Correll Teen Center.
“It’s a place where you can be yourself, and while you’re being yourself, you have other people rooting for you,” she said. “The kids, the staff, everybody in here wants to see you do good. Everybody in here wants to see everybody achieve something.”
The Boys & Girls Club’s slogan is “Great futures start here,” Austin said, and Gurley is the epitome of that idea.
“You spend five minutes with Damaria, and you can totally see where this is the beginning of something really, really special for her and for her life,” he said.
Austin hopes the community will root for her win and for her bright future.
“Hopefully this community rallies behind her and takes pride in the fact that we have a representative from a really special community that’s being recognized at the state level,” he said.
Gurley has persisted through her struggles not only for herself, she said, but in memory of the loved ones she’s lost.
“I’ll say, they were my biggest motivation,” she said. “So this was like, I did it, but I also made them proud.”
That accomplishment — making them proud — was the first thought that ran through Gurley’s mind when the judge’s called out her name as the state Youth of the Year winner.
“I kind of felt that when they called my name,” she said. “… I didn’t cry, but I was about to. If they would have kept me up there a little longer, I probably would have cried.”
The Boys & Girl Club, she said, helped her find her voice.
“That’ s my biggest take out of this — a voice — and it helped mold my leadership skills and shape my passions,” she said.