Akimmy Wheeler honestly didn’t think she would go as far as she did.

Akimmy Wheeler honestly didn’t think she would go as far as she did.

That statement goes both toward Wheeler’s still-young 18-year-old life and with her recent competition for the Midwest Region’s Boys & Girls Clubs Youth of the Year.

Wheeler, a May graduate of William Chrisman High School and the 2012 Missouri Youth of the Year for Boys & Girls Clubs, didn’t take home a medal from Chicago at last week’s regional level, but she is excited about the new microwave she received as a prize, as well as a gift card to jcpenney where the upcoming college freshman plans to buy other necessities for her dorm room.

But she took away more than prizes. Wheeler says she also took away strength and inspiration in giving speeches and hearing the stories of others.

“Just knowing some of the youth – I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going against them? Are you kidding me?’” Wheeler says, smiling. “Their stories and just them period, it made it seem like it would be much harder than it really was.”

Her peers told stories of their parents’ deaths, of growing up abused, of moving around constantly and of working to help their families make ends meet – and Wheeler says, at times, she was moved to tears because of their experiences and triumphs.

“I was like, ‘Gosh, I’ve been through a lot, but they’ve had it rough,’” she says. “Each time I went for the competition, I felt like it wasn’t only for me, but it was also for them.”

The daughter of a single mother, Wheeler moved across the South as a child, attending at least six different elementary schools before settling at Hawthorne Apartments in Independence when she was 12. The family of six children also was homeless at times, left to living out of a car.

Even in the nearly six months since the competition began, with Wheeler being named as the 2012 Youth of the Year for the Kansas City area of five Boys & Girls Clubs, she appears to have gained more confidence in her public speaking. Before Wheeler joined Boys & Girls Clubs – and even when she first joined the Hawthorne Unit – she was introverted and preferred keeping to herself, or as she calls it now, “being solo.”

“I was not a people person,” she says. “I didn’t like the whole talking-to-people thing. I was like, ‘Are you serious? Why do I have to talk to you? Just let me go home. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to deal with this.’ I liked to be secluded so I could think about things I did throughout the day or what I was going to do tomorrow.”

It’s a rare opportunity now for Wheeler to have that alone time. She works two full-time jobs, spending 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Hawthorne Unit before going to her job as a rides operator at Worlds of Fun, where she sometimes works until 1 a.m.

She saved up paychecks for her cell phone and was recently able to purchase her own car. Wheeler also helps pay her family’s monthly gas bill, her phone bill and car insurance, as well as helping with food and toiletries expenses.

“When I was at regionals, it was like, they’re going through the same thing I am,” Wheeler says of her fellow Boys & Girls Clubs members. “It was really hard when I went to regionals – it was much harder.”

Wheeler did get to see her father recently, as he traveled from Miami for her graduation from William Chrisman. Her father, a native of Jamaica, recalled his days as a youth, also working several jobs and getting little sleep, in order to survive.

Although she considers herself blessed to have two full-time jobs, Wheeler says she didn’t really get to have a normal teenager’s life until her senior year.

About two weeks ago, while at McCoy Park, Wheeler says she sat quietly and had a reflective moment about her life, both before and after, she joined Boys & Girls Clubs.

“It was just really hard to believe that I am where I am right now, because I really couldn’t see my future self – I don’t why, but I just couldn’t see myself getting out of the situation I was in,” Wheeler says.

But, she did. Wheeler was a participant in the A+ program at William Chrisman and earned multiple scholarships for college.

Even as she attends Park University in Parkville, Mo., this fall, double majoring in interior design and psychology, Wheeler will work at the Hawthorne Unit on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Her work at the Boys & Girls Clubs isn’t complete just yet, she says, smiling, as she sees a group of fourth- and fifth-grade students who will need her ongoing support and guidance.

“I am going to be here,” she says, placing an extra emphasis on the word “am.” “I just figured I couldn’t leave. I don’t think that’s possible yet because there are still some youth here who really need help.”