When he first started at Sarah Heinz House, Nick Foley was 7 years old. "He was one of those kids who hung his head when you talked to him, whether it would be from shyness or distrust," says Stanley Pittman, executive director. At age 8, Nick entered foster care, his parents unable to care for him. He would eventually live in seven different households with six different guardians.
As he grew up, Sarah Heinz House was the one constant in his life. "It always felt so right to me," says Nick. "It set me up for very great things, taught me so many life lessons."
And it helped him do well in school. "I really don't think I'd be where I am today if it hadn't been for my Boys and Girls Club. It really has saved my life," he says.
Now, 11 years later, Pittman sees a different Nick. "Today, it's just the opposite. He looks you in the eyes and speaks very boldly and confidently. It's a total transformation from when I first knew Nick."
To cap it off, Nick Foley, now18, was elected as 2012 Youth of the Year for the national Boys and Girls Clubs of America. That's the first national winner to come out of the Sarah Heinz House.
Nick has been traveling around the country, and to Clubs at military bases in Germany and England, meeting celebrity Club alumni such as Denzel Washington (the national Clubs spokesperson), Lebron James, Ashanti Douglas, Cuba Gooding Jr., Mario Lopez, and Ne-Yo, not to mention President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. When Pop City caught up with Foley, he had just met with Attorney General Eric Holder the evening before.
As he sees donors, potential donors and teen leaders in Clubs across the country, Foley says he is "trying to inspire them to help the Boys and Girls Club movement. There's just been so many great experiences. I've gone to all these new places and met all these amazing people, [including] people who want to give back. I try to explain how I'm a perfect example of 'Great Futures Start Here,'" the Boys and Girls Club motto.
Foley told his story in an appearance before the National Press Club, captured on video
This fall, he'll be attending Penn State in the fall for civil engineering after doing well in his Pittsburgh Allderdice High School engineering program.
"I'm not exactly positive what I'm going to do," with his degree, he says. "After all my travelling, I'm really open to being other paces, seeing what I can do."
He finds it hard to pick what was most influential about his Club experience. It might be the mentoring experience. "When you were younger, you looked up not only to the staff members but the older members," he says. As he became one of the older members himself, "Seeing the random kids come up and give you a hug and you don't know who these kids are -- you know you are being watched."
Bob Bechtold, physical education program director and camp director at the Club when Foley started and now director of outreach and recruitment, remembers Foley as "a great example of a kid who took advantage of everything Sarah Heinz House had to offer," attending as many as six days a week to participate in sports, dance classes, aquatics and other activities.
"His exposure to a wide variety of programs helped him hone in on some particular skills he wanted to develop," says Pittman. Most important, he says, were the relationships he developed with staff. Foley was able to develop his own mentoring abilities by joining the Club's national teen leadership program, Keystone, during which members create service projects, attend leadership trainings and mentor younger members.
"He was quite a shy kid" at first, recalls Bechtold, but "he really took advantage of all the programs we had. As he grew up he took more of a lead-by-example role. And as he matured, he took more of a vocal leadership role, making sure the younger kids are doing the right thing."
Foley remembers Bechtold as a strong influence: "He had to make me come out of my shell a bit. If I had a problem I knew I could go to Bob. I knew he was always open to giving me advice." Bechtold is still Foley's mentor, travelling with him to many of his national appearances.
Sarah Heinz House is unique among Boys and Girls Clubs across the nation. It is the only one that requires twice-weekly attendance at one of its 160 after-school offerings, once for a gym or swim program and once for the program that teaches social skills.
Every year, Sarah Heinz House picks three or four youths to attend the board retreat and advise board members about what the Club is doing right -- and where it can improve. Foley was chosen to attend in 2010. Sarah Heinz House had just expanded its facility, nearly doubling program space, and the staff was stretched thin in their duties, Pittman say. One-on-one time with Club members suffered, and Foley helped the Club reprioritize staff time.
Club members at Sarah Heinz House have won state youth of the year for four of the last six years, and three of the four state winners were also regional winners. But no local Club member had ever won the nationals before.
"We have high expectations for the kids," says Pittman. "We expect the kids to reach out and grow into them."
Performing his duties as national Youth of the Year, Foley "is extremely articulate, quick on his feet, and he can deliver an impromptu talk as if he were a pro," says Pittman.Yet he has exhibited "total humility in the limelight. I'm impressed with his ability to not change. He is still the same Nick I know.
"Nick's always the voice of the kids," Pittman concludes. "Nick now is a role model for kids coming up. It's possible they will strive to follow in his footsteps."
Nick Foley seems poised to help that happen. Whether he works directly for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America or volunteers, he says, "It's always going to be a big part of my life."
Marty Levine is the For Good editor of Pop City.