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The City Journals

2019 Utah Youth of the Year reaches out to others

Jun 18, 2019 04:15PM ● By Jenniffer Wardell

Jaime Duenas prepares breakfast burritos with Polly Startup (left) and Nick Altman, other members of the Keystone Club. (Jenniffer Wardell/City Journals)

By Jenniffer Wardell | [email protected]

If Jaime Duenas had a motto, it would be “service with a smile.” 

The teen, who has been serving as the Boys & Girls Club 2019 Utah Youth of the Year, takes every opportunity he can to give service to the people around him. A member of the Sugar House Boys & Girls Club, he helps organize service projects in the community and works with other kids at the club. 

“I just love being able to impact other people’s lives, even if it’s something small,” he said. 

Duenas, who will be a senior at Highland High School next year, is the president of the Sugar House Club’s Keystone Club. The group, which focuses on community service, is currently making breakfast burritos for the local homeless population. 

“We do 300 a day, which I think is pretty impressive for a bunch of teens,” he said. 

The group also handles a variety of other projects throughout the year, including a community blood drive. Duenas said he often finds projects by reaching out to the community and seeing where the greatest needs are. 

“I’m just really passionate about community service,” Duenas said. “I really feel that’s why I got chosen.” 

He was first chosen as the Salt Lake Youth of the Year, then went on to win the Utah title before ending his run at the regional competition. His speech at the club's 52nd Annual Great Futures Gala this past May was the last of his official duties as Youth of the Year, but Duenas said he still feels the effects of the position.

“Being in this position, I have little kids look up to me and want to be like me,” he said. “They see me as a person of color. They see me as someone they could respect and trust.”

It’s the kind of example he feels like he didn’t have as a child. 

“Not having people in power who looked like me really affected me,” he said. 

An unsettled home life created challenges of its own. Duenas said that his parents weren’t married, which led to a lot of fighting when he was younger about when he would spend time with each of them. Years later, he still remembers a classmate saying that kids whose parents weren’t married didn’t actually exist.  

 “It really affected me,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to have an existential crisis at 7.”

When his little sister was born, Duenas described it as “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Unfortunately, it also made his home life even less stable.

“The fighting started up again,” he said. “I started having these thoughts that I was the problem, and maybe it would be better for everyone if I wasn’t around.” 

Thankfully, a friend recommended the Boys & Girls Club’s after school program. 

“I found a place I belonged,” Duenas said of his first visit to the club. “Everyone’s so nice and accepting. It’s been like a second home ever since.”

It also reignited old dreams of going to college. Duenas said that he’s wanted to go to the University of Utah ever since he was a kid, but as he got older it was tough to believe he could make it happen. 

“In middle school, I felt (the dream) slipping away,” he said. “I didn’t think I was smart or capable enough to make it.”

At the Boys & Girls Club, however, he saw more opportunities he could use to achieve his dream. He also realized it was a way to help other people achieve their dreams. 

“If I went to college, I could help people who didn’t have the resources I did,” he said. 

Though he relishes the chance to be an example for others, Duenas admits that it can also be intimidating. 

“It’s a little scary at first, because you’re still young and developing,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure, but it made me feel like I could have a lasting impact on the people around me.” 

It’s also helped him prepare for life beyond college.

“When I get older and have a family of my own, I’ll know how to take that pressure and not crack,” he said.