By Eric Pilgrim | Fort Knox NewsMarch 15, 2019
For Fort Knox High School senior Lauro Melendez, victory proved sweet at the 2019 Boys & Girls Clubs of America Kentucky State Military Youth of the Year competition March 6.
For the staff who worked with him, victory proved six times sweeter.
The Child and Youth Services program, housed at Devers, has been home to six consecutive winners at the state level as well as two back-to-back regional winners, and one winner at the national military level in 2013.
This was Lauro's year after coming up just short to Brandon Clay last year. Clay went on to win at the Midwest Region competition and represent the region at the military national competition. Rayceil Oggs, chief of Child and Youth Services at Fort Knox, said Lauro has proven that he is ready this year.
"Lauro has been with us for quite a while, and even though he didn't win at last year's competition, I think he was really touched by the experience," said Oggs. "As a result of that, he really focused in and said, 'This is something I want to win; this is something that's going to help me get better and do better.'
"He has improved a hundred percent."
Standing just outside of the spotlight at this year's competitions, and every competition for at least the past six years, is a small team of professionals who have honed their ability to produce winners.
"Lauro's win reinforces the wonderful job that the staff at Devers Middle School and Teen Center does with our young people," said Oggs.
As Lauro's lead mentor, Tessarose Cepe is a key member of the team. The lead program assistant at the teen center has personally mentored four of the six previous winners, including Lauro, and has worked with him for the past three years. She attributes the team's successes to two things.
"Having great and amazing youth to choose from is definitely part of it," said Cepe. "For the most part, though, it's just finding kids who are willing to put in the work; in and of itself it's a two-year commitment."
Cepe said the hardest part of mentoring has been encouraging youth to compete. Because of this, they have started a junior youth program for younger adolescents that will prepare them to compete at the teen level when they are old enough. It also provides the mentors a bigger pool of youths who can compete at the senior teen level, according to Cepe.
"It's really hard to get them to agree to do it because of how much work it takes," said Cepe.
Besides the laborious application process, each competitor must write four essays to be entered during each competition, prepare and deliver speeches, stand before a question-and-answer board, and log hundreds of volunteer hours leading up to the local competition as well as continued volunteer hours afterward. Cepe and the other mentors are there every step of the way in the process.
"That's what is special about Fort Knox is it's not just one mentor to one youth," Cepe said. "It's all the youth and all the mentors helping each other."
Lauro won the Fort Knox Military Youth of the Year competition on Jan. 20 against a field of six competitors. At the state level last week, he won against a Fort Campbell competitor. The next stop: regionals in April, where he will compete against other military youths; then on to military nationals, if he wins, where he will square off against five regional champions for the honor of top military youth, to be announced in Washington, D.C., in September.
If he wins Military Youth of the Year, Lauro will compete against five non-military finalists for the top honor as the 2019-20 National Youth of the Year.
Every step of the way, traveling with him as far as he can go, will be Cepe - coaching, advising, mentoring, cheering.