WASHINGTON -- The Boys and Girls Clubs of America recognized its national military youth of the year Thursday during a banquet here at the National Press Club.

Two of the six candidates vying for the national title represented Army families.

Among guest speakers were Lt. Gen. Leslie Smith, the Army's inspector general, and retired Air Force Gen. Darren McDew. Both men are BGCA hall of fame alumni, and credited the youth organization for playing an instrumental role in their success.

"It only takes a spark to light a fire," Smith said, addressing the crowd, adding the young members grow "into a fire so all those around can warm up to its glow."

As a young boy growing up in Atlanta, Smith said he's a product of that "spark." During his early years, he found solace at his local club. It helped him overcome various difficult obstacles, including the death of his father, he said, and helped mold him into the leader he is today.

For the six finalists, their sparks were ignited as they competed for the title of military youth of the year.

NATIONAL MILITARY YOUTH OF THE YEAR

In the end, Dasia Bailey, a 17-year-old representing the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Youth Center in Virginia, won and received a one-time $20,000 scholarship.

Before hitting the main stage, state-level winners each received a $5,000 scholarship. From there, regional winners were chosen and each received an additional $10,000 scholarship, renewable up to four years.

Six teen finalists emerged to represent youth centers on military installations in five U.S. regions as well as overseas.

Two of the regional winners represented the Army: Christian Ashford from the Pacific region, and Lauro Melendez from the Midwest.

CHRISTIAN ASHFORD

Ashford, a 16-year-old military youth from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, was active at the Hillside Youth Center and volunteered more than 340 hours of community service.

He held a 3.8 GPA and was selected to his high school's National Honor Society. In addition, he was awarded the Elizabeth Wesley Youth Incentive Award for academic excellence in 2017 and 2018.

"To walk a mile in my shoes would reveal a plethora of eye-opening experiences, personal challenges, and simple realizations learned from the world around me, that has molded me to be the person I am today," Ashford said in a statement. "Leadership and determination lead the way, and I am ready to lead."

Ashford previously served as a leader in the JROTC academic program, holding multiple leadership positions. He has also supported JBLM community projects, including events at his high school and fundraising campaigns.

"My core values are very important to me, because each value defines my individuality," Ashford said. "My faith is the foundation of who I am and the driving force for all that I accomplish in life."

He added that his strong sense of perseverance is equally important to his identity and encourages him to keep pushing through hardships.

Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, Ashford said. "As a military teen, life is filled with constant (permanent change of station) moves, changing schools, gaining and losing friends, missing loved ones, and even losing family members."

He also established the first Cultural Diversity Club at his high school, a platform to celebrate diversity, and hopes to attend the Air Force Academy upon graduation.

LAURO MELENDEZ

For Melendez, an 18-year-old high school senior, the competition was an opportunity to honor his brother, who was killed by gun violence last year.

In addition to focusing on the "unnecessary deaths" from gun violence, he said other issues he's passionate about is teaching others self-defense and situational awareness in schools and teen centers nationwide.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Melendez grew up homeless on the streets of San Juan before moving in with his father.

Before he earned the 2019 Midwest Youth of the Year, he was named the 2018 Outstanding Youth Volunteer at Fort Knox, Kentucky, after he volunteered more than 150 hours toward service projects such as a hunger banquet, diversity forum and canned food, clothing and blood drives.

"I want to show everyone that you can come from rough beginnings and still be an honor student and president of multiple clubs," Melendez said in a statement. "You can come from being homeless and living in a car to becoming an individual with purpose, passion, and ambition."

Melendez maintains above a 3.0 GPA, and has taken three Advanced Placement courses, including, AP Biology, AP Spanish, and AP Psychology. He is also a varsity student-athlete in track and field, powerlifting, wrestling and the cheerleading team.

Also during the banquet, Judi Patrick, an Army child and youth program analyst, was awarded the organization's Champion of Youth Award, the highest award for distinguished leadership and extraordinary commitment for creating new opportunities for military-connected youth.

"This is an honor because I've work with military families for more than 25 years," Patrick said. "These moves have shown me firsthand the impact moves have on military families. This impact gives me greater motivation to serve those families who are supporting their service member."