From a very early age Maryah Sullivan knew that achieving her dreams would be a struggle. With eyes wide open she looked around herself at a life of poverty and disadvantage and vowed that her future would be different.
She found a second home for herself at the John R. Lee branch of the Boys & Girls Club in Eatonville and spent nearly every afternoon there from the age of 6 on.
No matter what was happening at home, she could always find safe haven there, with all the encouragement and support she needed to become the vibrant, well-balanced young woman she is today.
Out of hundreds of other deserving young adults, Sullivan was recently named the 2014 Youth of the Year by the Boys & Girls Club for the state of Florida.
“There has always been something special about Maryah,” said Austin Long, service director at the Eatonville branch that Sullivan attends. “I have watched her grow up and it does my heart good to see her excel as she has.”
Childhood handed Sullivan little in the way of advantage. Born in Mississippi, Sullivan moved to Eatonville as a toddler and lived with a stepfather who, though well meaning, involved himself in criminal activity that endangered the family.
As a young child, Sullivan recalled seeing sketchy characters coming and going. And, as recently as a few years ago, experienced a police raid at her home, which led to her stepfather’s incarceration.
Moving was a frequent occurrence and the only truly stable thing in her young life was the Boys & Girls Club.
Through it all though, Sullivan maintained excellent grades, earning mostly A’s. She recently graduated from Edgewater High School with a 4.4 GPA.
With two younger siblings and a single mom, Sullivan often helped out by cooking, babysitting and taking on adults responsibilities as a child.
“I always felt the need to be the strong one,” Sullivan said.
“There was just so much going on at home, someone had to keep it together.”
Even now, she lives in a home with eight other people, including her uncle, siblings and four young cousins.
At school, classmates and teachers know her as the straight-A student who is active in clubs, sports and social life, never guessing what she goes through at home.
“I walk out the door each morning and leave what’s going on at home in the house,” Sullivan said. “It’s the only way I manage.”
She does her homework at the Boys & Girls Club just as she has every afternoon, except that now she is often found tutoring other children, helping to encourage them to keep at it with the same dogged determination she comes about so naturally.
Nominated by her local club for the Youth of the Year honor, Sullivan first competed against other nominees at the local level. Each nominee was required to submit essays on various topics and to present one of them before a panel, to demonstrate a range of character development.
Outshining the competition, Sullivan was named the regional youth of the year and went on to represent her local club at the state level, where she would compete against regional winners from across Florida.
Taking home the state title seemed like a long shot to Sullivan, though.
“I was so shocked to win because everyone there was so deserving, really anyone could have won. They were all so nice,” she said.
In addition to the title, Sullivan took home $6,000 in scholarship money that she will use to study at the University of South Florida in Tampa where they offer a seven-year accelerated pre-medicine program.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been doctoring people,” Sullivan said.
“It’s just a part of who I am.”
Anxious to get started, Sullivan is heading to Tampa early to begin college in the summer term rather than wait for fall. She plans to attend classes every summer to finish her undergrad education as quickly as possible.
She already has a specialty in mind, hoping to someday become a neurosurgeon.
“I became obsessed with how the brain works in my high school psychology class,” she said. “My interest just grew from there.”
Sullivan plans to keep in connect with the Boys & Girls Club throughout college by volunteering at a local club in Tampa.
“I want to stay connected to an organization that has given me so much,” she said.
As her mentor and surrogate father at the Boys & Girls Club, Long has known Sullivan nearly all her life and has watched her grow up.
“She has always been a leader and never minded being called smart, like other kids might,” he said.
“She just turned that into a further challenge to show other kids how to do better. Maryah is always encouraging others to not give up.
“She’s dedicated to her own future, for sure, but she never forgets to stop along the way and help everyone else, that’s what really makes her special.”