More than 100 people filled the ballroom at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza in downtown Berkeley on June 2 to show their support for 20 young Bay Area people, who, in spite of high odds, have managed to succeed in different areas of life. The third annual Rising Stars Youth Leadership gala, hosted by the Berkeley-based Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), was filled with stories of triumph, including overcoming homelessness, criminal justice issues and difficult family backgrounds.
“This ceremony is an acknowledgement of all the great spirits that fill the bodies of these awardees,” said Reverend Michael Burch of Northbrae Community Church, one of several guest speakers to recognize the award recipients at the gala, which started after a brief delay caused by a power outage. “They’ve done more than just encourage me, they’ve given me a motivation for life.”
Northbrae Community Church has hosted the gala for the past two years.
The event recognizes the 20 award recipients as having persevered towards graduation, college and other life goals and, along with BOSS, is organized in collaboration with Berkeley Youth Alternatives, Berkeley High School and Berkeley Technology Academy. Each of the four nonprofits nominates five outstanding youth in five categories: Consistency, Caring for Family, Role Model, New Directions and Community Involvement.
Former Rising Star Lia Lacy also took to the stage to address the audience. She spoke about her first-hand experience working with BOSS and stressed to the students that this was only the beginning of a long journey. She encouraged them to understand that their tough pasts should serve as testimony and not stultify their personal worth.
“We all go through some type of struggle, but we still persevere,” Lacy said. “All you students have faced tremendous amounts of adversity, and I want you all to know that I’m extremely proud of you.”
Among the award recipients was 18-year-old De’zah Boynton. Boynton, a senior at Berkeley High, received the Community Involvement award. She was also recently accepted into Northridge State University, and will enroll into the university’s bridge program this summer. Boynton, who had to deal with her mother being a drug addict, and a number of academic set-backs, including being held back in fourth grade, said she didn’t know where she would be if it weren’t for BOSS. She said BOSS played a crucial role in helping her mother get clean, and, in the process, changed the direction of her life.
“Growing up, my mother was in and out of jail,” she said. “It was tough. It took a toll on me and my education. When she got out of jail and began working with BOSS our lives changed for the better.”
Boynton’s was just one of many heartfelt stories to be told throughout the night, as family and friends were reminded of the struggles each award recipient faced to get closer to their goals.
Thomas Jones, a recent graduate of Berkeley City College, received the Role Model award. He said he uses BOSS as an opportunity to give back to kids and make sure they don’t follow in his footsteps. Jones, who was the victim of a shooting in which he was an innocent bystander, said he hung out with the wrong crowd growing up, and, as a result, made some bad decisions. Now as a father to a son, Jones said it is important that he use his energy to do something positive. He feels that by giving kids a positive role model and mentor to look up to, you increase the chances for them to succeed. “I want to make sure that kids don’t fall into the same traps I did,” he said. “Kids often mimic the actions of adults. I want to give them something constructive to duplicate.”
Jones is set to transfer to San Francisco State in the fall, and he hopes one day to be a lawyer and help keep troubled youth out of the system. He feels that his age helps him to be an effective role model.
“I think with me being closer to their age, it makes it easier to connect with them. It wasn’t too long ago I was in their shoes, trying to find my way.”
The awards show ended with closing remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Jowel C. Laguerre, Chancellor of the Peralta Community College District, who spoke of everyone’s responsibility to protect the dreams of the youth. His words elicited cheers from the crowd and the energy shifted from laughter to seriousness. “I love the term ‘rising star’ because you are all stars in your own way,” he said. “You are the future of our state, the future of our country, and the future of humanity.”
Check out award winning journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Jon Jeter’s tribute to the young people who were honored at BOSS’s third annual Rising Stars Youth Leadership Gala. BOSS is crowd-funding for youth scholarships — visit its fundraising webpage.
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