Mai Tong Yang, Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s (BGCA) Midwest Youth of the Year, works hard to help others feel at home. She is no stranger to the challenges of adapting to life in a new country. Born in unstable, war-torn Laos, she and her family were forced into a refugee camp in Thailand, before eventually relocating to Minneapolis several months later.
As she was just a toddler at the time, Mai Tong has no memory of life in the camp. Her only image is that of a photograph her mother kept from those challenging days. “It was clear that living conditions were cramped, and the beauty of nature was beyond reach of those behind the fences,” Mai Tong recalls.
At age 6, Mai Tong joined the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she discovered not only the encouragement and support she needed to learn a new culture and a new language, but a deep feeling of optimism. “I found a place where I belonged,” she says.
Life still proved challenging for Mai Tong and her family, however. Her parents struggled to support nine children, and there was often not enough food to eat. So when she turned 14, Mai Tong decided to contribute to the support of her household, and began working at the Club as a junior staff member, using her earnings to help her family buy groceries and make ends meet.
Mai Tong has been a member of her Club for 11 years now, during which time she has grown into an impressive young woman with a strong character, a positive outlook, and a love for people. Over the years, she has been a mentor to younger Club members, and assisted her peers with the Power Hour homework help program. She also served as president of Keystone Club.
With the help and encouragement of Club staff, Mai Tong worked hard and remained focused on her academics. Being particularly interested in languages, she earned a prestigious scholarship from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth to study abroad in South Korea for a year. For Mai Tong, whose career goal is to become an international diplomat, this was an invaluable opportunity; she was able to learn yet another language, experience another culture, and share her knowledge of American culture with South Korean youth.
Mai Tong graduated high school with a GPA of 4.08, and is currently a freshman at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, where she studies International Relations. She is well on her way to achieving her goals, and remains just as optimistic about the future as ever.
But this should come as no surprise. In the old photograph that her mother showed her, something stood out to Mai Tong; something remarkable. In that image of her very young self and her siblings in the refugee camp, there are no looks of sadness or suffering. “Our eyes communicated laughter, energy, and hope,” she says. And it’s that hope that has driven her to where she is today… and will take her to new heights in the years to come.
Mai Tong attributes much of her success, however, to what she’s learned at her Club. “The single most important lesson my Boys & Girls Club taught me,” says Mai Tong, “is that my circumstances do not define me.”
Toyota Financial Services is a proud sponsor of Pacific Youth of the Year and the National Youth of the Year dinners where TFS awards more than $70,000 in Toyota scholarships, and a new Toyota vehicle to the National Youth of the Year winner. Mai Tong received more than $2,500 in scholarship money, which was raised through the TFS Brand Story contest. The TFS Brand Story Contest gives our associates the opportunity to acknowledge extraordinary and everyday moments where they witness fellow associates delivering an experience that exemplifies the TFS Brand. These stories help our associates visualize a TFS brand culture that builds strong relationships and creates loyalty through extraordinary customer service. For every Brand Story that is submitted, TFS contributes $10 directly to the Youth of the Year program supporting youth in every state. This year more than 2,150 associates contributed 7,444 stories.