WAGNER - Wagner High School Senior Joi Zephier was named South Dakota's 2019 Youth of the Year, the highest honor presented by Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Zephier, who is from Pickstown, was one of five finalists who were selected based on their community involvement, academic record and involvement in their local club. She has been a member and volunteered hundreds of hours for the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Missouri River Area in Wagner since 2011.
"I first got involved because my mom was working at the school and she stayed until like 4:30 so we needed a place to go after school and wait for her because we lived all the way out in Avon and didn't have a way home," Zephier said. "We would all wait at the club and I really liked it and it became a hangout spot for me and my friends."
As a junior, Zephier began working for Wagner's Boys and Girls Club at the front desk. She is also a member of National Honor Society and Jobs for America's Graduates (JAG), and is a two-time national competitor for the JAG Math Program in Washington, D.C. She recently became involved with Strengthening Our Community (SOCs), a prevention program focused on helping people who are suffering with mental illness.
Zephier said she was encouraged by her teachers and mentors to apply for the Youth of the Year award and decided to do it. She spent many days working on three essays and the paperwork, memorizing one of the essays to give as a speech.
In February, the finalists spent two days in Pierre being interviewed by judges and meeting the governor and legislators.
"Everyone's speech was different. They would talk about their club experience and their lives. I talked about myself, but I also talked about my club experience, my successes and my future," Zephier said. "Mine was way shorter than everyone else's. I didn't think I was going to get it because everyone else's was kind of the same and mine was different, so I was really nervous."
When Zephier was younger, she attended the Smart Girls program through the Boys and Girls Club, led by Amy Doom. The program taught girls how to form healthy relationships and help themselves spiritually, mentally and physically to be a better woman in the world. Zephier said along with her mother and grandmother, Doom taught her a lot about being a woman and a good person.
"It's one thing to know about your body, mind and spirit and know how they work, but it's not until you have a relationship with another female mentor that those things can really come to life," Doom said. "You're not an observer. You're a participant. And once you get those qualities from someone else, you're able to give them away. And Joi was able to find that at the Boys and Girls Club and I know that she is going to emerge and thrive and all of her siblings will follow her."
Zephier plans to attend Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls and study licensed practical nursing. She received the Build Dakota Scholarship, which has paid for her entire tuition for the two-year program.
Before going to college, Zephier will compete at the Midwest Regional competition in Atlanta on June 11 and Chicago on June 17. The selected Regional Youth of the Year will compete in Washington, D.C. in September for the National Youth of the Year.
"I'm pretty excited about moving forward to Regional Youth of the Year," Zephier said. "It will be interesting to see how other people run their clubs, because I think that our club is very different than others around South Dakota. We have a lot of art on the walls, and it's so loud inside that you can hear pool balls cracking and kids yelling from outside the doors. I've never been in another club that is like that."
When Zephier was at the competition in Pierre, she said she overheard her sister telling someone how much she looked up to her.
"It almost made me cry because I didn't think I was a role model or that kids actually looked up to me. I just work at the club and do the front desk and sit there and answer phone calls. I didn't think it was noticeable what I do. It's so crazy and I feel so honored to know that these kids actually want me around and care for me and look up to me."