Great Futures At The Playground Gala Celebrates Youth Achievement and Announces 2024 Youth of the Year

Ismail Botchway named Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis “Youth of the Year” for his leadership in tragedy

Youth of the Year Ismail Botchway is flanked by, BGCSTL HR Director Christian Williams, left, and BGCSTL President and CEO Flint W. Fowler, Ph.D. (BGCSTL photo) 

The celebratory buzz at “Great Futures At The Playground Gala” echoed with the splendor of youth achievement in the packed Armory in midtown St. Louis, October 25th, in anticipation of announcement of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis (BGCSTL) 2024 Youth of the Year.

The sounds of the jazzy Red & Black Brass Band, the energetic moves of the BGCSTL Dance Team, the stomps of the Gentlemen of Vision step team and the aroma of an elegant buffet filling the air – got the party started.

Red and Black Brass Band (Walter Pritchard photo)

Gentlemen of Vision Steppers (Walter Pritchard photo)

Four finalists out of seven candidates, were in the running for the distinguished honor as their names and pictures flashed on the huge video screen.

Furtherly, the Emcee for the evening, was KSDK-TV news anchor, Rene Knott, who said ‘When the way forward for youth is paved with opportunity, attention, and focus, they will follow.’

“Tonight, we have the opportunity to meet four distinguished young people who are doing that,” he said.  “Four is just the minimum. Four represents hundreds of others, who are not looking for an easy way, who are not looking for a handout but an opportunity, a chance, someone to believe in them and what they can become.”

Each finalist, Lai’Jeon Williams, Lailah Green, Ismail Botchway, and Jiyu Zhang delivered inspiring speeches about themselves, their journeys, and the importance of the Clubs’ in their lives. The audience gave roaring applause after each presentation.

When it was all said and done, the 2024 Youth of the Year winner was Ismail, 17, a senior at the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience. A two-year club member, he is a member of the clubs’ St. Louis Internship Program and Focus St. Louis.

Ismail was a student at Visual and Performing Arts High School last year, when a former student shot and killed teacher Jean Kuczka and student Alexzandria Bell before being shot and killed by police. A tragedy, which then led to other people being injured during the mass shooting in the school.

“Broken. Afraid. I am Ismail Botchway, and this is me before the Boys and Girls Clubs,” Ismail said, beginning his speech. “The Boys and Girls Club took me from being alone, broken and afraid, and turned me into the indestructible leader that stands before you today.”

Ismail recalled the real time emotional moments as the shooting was happening.

“October 24th, 2022, started as a normal day at school. Until it wasn’t,” he said, in a somber tone. “We heard the announcement that there was an active shooter. I cried and cried. I hung in the back of the classroom trying to stay calm so the shooter would not enter. About six minutes later, we heard a bang on the door. It was the police. We ran outside with our hands up.”

Ismal said that the Boys and Girls clubs were the only place where he had a home following the tragedy. Mentors were always there for him for “whatever I needed.”

“They not only supported me, but they taught me the importance of serving and advocating in my community,” he continued

For earning the top honor, Ismail received a $5,000 scholarship and a new car from Frank Leta Honda. His career ambition is to become a lawyer, serve as a member of the Clubs’ Board of Directors and to be a sponsor to truly make a difference.

The other BGCSTL Youth of the Year finalists were:

2nd place, Jiyu Zhang, a senior, Hazelwood West High School, $2,500 scholarship

3rd place, Lailah Green, a senior at Metro Academic and Classical High School, $1,000 scholarship

4th place, Lai’Jeon Williams, a senior at Whitfield School, $500 scholarship

The gala also featured a heartfelt video tribute Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club co-founder, the late Martin L. Mathews, who lead the club, Penrose and Kingshighway at Interstate 70 for more than 50 years. Mathews welcomed more than a million children through the clubs doors, forging a path of inspiration and hope. He died in 2022 at the age of 97.

In remarks to the audience, BGCSTL President and CEO Flint W. Fowler, Ph.D., thanked the supporters and sponsors for believing in the clubs’ mission to help youth achieve positive outcomes in life.

“Our clubs and partner locations are indispensable in light of the challenges our children and teens face today,” Fowler said. “Your support helps young people thrive in school, live healthy lives and to be prepared for the future.”

Learn more about the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, visit


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