A few hours leading up to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Scottsdale’s Celebrate Youth at Blue Door Ball gala fundraiser on March 1, the eight 2019 Youth of the Year finalists, donning either sparkling, bejeweled gowns or crisp tuxes, were gathered at the entrance of the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge conference space.

One by one, they had their photos taken against lush, green foliage. Although they appeared calm, cool and collected on the surface, deep down, they were all nervous for the evening ahead – especially 17-year-old northern Scottsdale resident, Tisha Bhatnagar.

“I'm really nervous just because I don't know who won and that's just nerve wracking,” the Virginia G. Piper Branch member of four years said in her maroon, sequined dress, her lip color matching the hue flawlessly. “But I'm really excited to give my speech to such a large audience.”

She did more than give her speech; Bhatnagar was named the organization’s Youth of the Year.

"All of the candidates are a wonderful representation of the light that the clubs provide, and all of the candidates were worthy of becoming the 2019 Youth of the Year," said Sara Donaldson.

Donaldson, VP Investment Stewardship at Voya Investment Management and Boys & Girls Club of Greater Scottsdale board member, served as lead judge for this year's competition.

"The final decision was extremely difficult, but in the end, we felt that Tisha was the best representative of that light,” Donaldson said.

Bhatnagar will move on to compete at the state level on March 26, and she feels more than prepared to take it on.

“With the staff and the other contestants, we have definitely improved just from the last round to now, so if I win, I will improve more,” Bhatnagar said.

Bhatnagar, along with the other seven finalists, gave their respective speeches in front of the more than 650 guests in attendance at the gala.

The other finalists included Michael Brayer, 17, from the Vestar Branch; Alexandra Gutierrez, 16, from the Scottsdale Charros Branch; Caleb Jimenez, 18, from the Red Mountain Branch; Tara Malakian, 17, from the Thunderbirds Branch; Jake Mitchell, 17, from the Mary Ellen & Robert McKee Branch; Elyssa Velarde, 17, from the Lehi Branch; and Jessica Vera, 17, from the Hartley & Ruth Barker Branch.

For the first time in the history of this event, $1 million was raised via ticket and table sales, event sponsorships, paddle-raisers, and live and silent auctions to fund BGCS programming.

Bob and Renee Parsons, through the Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, donated more than $300,000 in the paddle raise and live auction, helping BGCS set the record-breaking amount.

Last year’s gala raised $913,000.

In addition, the finalists received a total of $12,000 in scholarship awards provided by Voya Financial. Bhatnagar received $5,000, and the other finalists received $1,000 each.

“This organization changes the lives of young people one day at a time,” said BGCS President and CEO, Robyn Julien. “If our more than 650 guests didn’t know that upon walking into the gala, they definitely knew it upon leaving Friday night after hearing our amazing teens tell their stories.”

Youth of the Year is a national Boys & Girls Clubs of America program that promotes leadership, exceptional academic performance and community service.

The annual competition began in September with 30 BGCS teens.

For months leading up to the final competition, all candidates prepared by writing essays, practiced interviewing, both one-on-one and with a panel, and practiced their speeches.

When Bhatnagar found out she was a finalist for Youth of the Year, she was shocked.

“It didn't sink in at first,” she said. “And then when I got home and I saw my plaque, I was like, ‘Mom, I really did it. I can't believe it.’ And so that's when it really like hit me.”

In Bhatnagar’s speech at the gala, she emphasized the importance of volunteering and giving back to one’s community.

“My mom, recognizing how unproductive my days were, introduced me to the Club, where I learned about how Piper’s Keystone Club was going to work in a soup kitchen that Saturday,” she said. “After cooking and serving food for seven hours, I discovered something: a way to connect my hopes for a better world to my free time.”

Bhatnagar’s call-to-action to her peers is to channel their ideas toward something tangible that could make an impact on the world.

She said joining BGCS is a way to do that.

“At the Club, everyone is working toward a common goal: to make our world better for future generations,” she said. “A teenager who comes in with a vision will find the resources and support to make it happen here.”

Bhatnagar has volunteered for Feed My Starving Children and André House of Arizona, among other organizations and events.

She calls her time spent at the Club “absolutely perfect.”

“I definitely enjoyed everything I've done from volunteering and helping kids to leading Keystone,” Bhatnagar said.

Julien said that through BCGS’ programming and the organizations’ youth development professionals, kids and teens will learn that they don’t have to be defined by what life throw at them.  

“By setting goals, working hard and having the support system and mentorships our Clubs provide, they decide what their life will be,” she said.

As for Bhatnagar, her advice to her peers is to be true to themselves and open themselves up to new experiences.

“Let yourself show. Don't be like a box or like a square that's defined by boundaries,” she said. “Be like water, like a circle, knowing you can always get bigger or smaller.”