These days, Nichole Tatu spends much of her time focused on life in California, far away from Fort Knox.
Not too long ago, however, the 17-year-old senior’s hard work and determination reaped a great reward as she represented herself and the central Kentucky installation at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America’s 2020 Midwest Military Youth of the Year competition.
That win in September, and the subsequent competition at nationals, stays fresh on her mind. So do her friends and mentors at Devers Middle School and Teen Center who helped get her there.
“It’s not like how a lot of people think a youth center is, where the staff members just watch the kids and the kids do whatever they want,” said Tatu. “It’s really more of a family there.”
Tatu said that family atmosphere, where the adults sincerely care about the youth, is a big part of why Devers keeps winning title after title each year.
“The staff members actually talk to the youth. They want to know how they’re doing, how their families are doing to see if they need support,” said Tatu. “It’s not just the staff members that are like that, either. The other youth are all there to help each other out and have each other’s backs.”
Tatu said mentors were also involved at every step to help her prepare for the annual competition. This was her second year competing.
Tessa Cepe became one of Tatu’s mentors earlier this year. Although she came on board a little late in Tatu’s mentorship, the regional win gave Cepe her fourth in a row as a mentor.
“Every youth gets to choose who their mentor is throughout their Youth of the Year journey,” said Cepe. “But we really make sure the youth understand and know that even though this person is on paper your actual mentor, you can go to any staff; and we utilize all the staff when preparing youth for Youth of the Year.”
Cepe had been Tatu’s mentor the first year she competed. This year she tried a new mentor, who eventually left for a job opportunity at a new location, which led Tatu back to Cepe. Tatu said mentors are a critical part of a competitor’s success.
“They make everything feel so much easier,” said Tatu.
She has discovered a valuable takeaway from preparing for each of the competitions — much of what is required to get ready for Youth of the Year applies directly to college and careers, like writing cover letters and personal essays, interviewing, and public speaking.
“Now, applying for college is so much easier because I already know how to do everything,” said Tatu. “My mentors taught me.”
Tatu, who describes herself as an introvert, said public speaking proved to be her biggest challenge. She said she worked hard over the summer to find opportunities to put herself in public situations, including getting involved in 4-H.
Cepe said what Tatu accomplished was not a small victory.
“The Youth of the Year journey in general is intense,” said Cepe. “The youth are already the cream of the crop; they’re usually involved in sports and different leadership clubs, they hold leadership positions in different organizations, they volunteer. On top of their daily busy lives, you’re giving them this application that includes four essays, they have to memorize a speech, work on their interviews.”
Her hard work paid off, as she remembered the moment they called her name at regionals.
“I felt immediate joy and relief,” Tatu said. “I no longer needed to stress over whether I did good or not. I worked so hard to get to that position. After my first time competing, I worked my butt off for an entire year to get different types of leadership, and to get my academics back on track.
“Knowing that all paid off was just super-overwhelming.”
This year, COVID-19 created a new challenge at the national level; she and others would have to compete online rather than in-person.
Now, Tatu works hard to give back to others where and when she can, and she acknowledges that sometimes it’s the little things that turn in one’s favor. While at Fort Knox, she often helped other youth who were moving to the area.
“Because many of us move a lot, one person is not always as adaptive to moving as another person,” said Tatu. “Knowing that somebody else has moved as many times as you do is so inspiring because you get to connect with them … and you get to be able to support them because you know exactly how they feel.”
Tatu found herself in that same boat a few months ago when her father, a Coast Guardsman, came down on orders to move to California. Tatu finished her Youth of the Year competition while in California.
Despite the distance, she still keeps connected to Devers when she can.
“I’ve been doing as much as I can to get more Fort Knox kids that I know involved in the community center because even though I have that distance, everything is pretty much online now,” said Tatu. “So I try to get kids to do these mental health programs so that they know that even in this difficult environment with COVID, there’s people there to help them.”
She might also be headed back to the area in about eight months. She has applied to three institutions of higher education, one of them being the University of Louisville.