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YEA! medal
Posted September 2, 2020 | 8:23 AM

A Decade of Youthful Excellence

YEA! Awards honor Hillsborough County students who make a difference in their community

The Sept. 2 presentation of the 2020 Youth Excellence and Achievement (YEA!) Awards marks a decade that Hillsborough County's Board of County Commissioners has conferred the honors on worthy middle- and high-school students.

Each year six local teens or pre-teens receive awards in one of three categories: Leadership, Success Despite Difficult Odds, and Volunteer or Community Service.

Watch Video of YEA! 2020 Winners

"I look forward to the YEA! Awards ceremony every year," says County Commission Chairman Leslie "Les" Miller Jr., who has been on the Board since the awards' inception. "These remarkable young people give me great hope for the future. Bestowing the awards is an honor for the Board of County Commissioners, and it's especially rewarding on the 10th anniversary of the program."

Nominations are made by teachers, parents, and others in Hillsborough County. The Hillsborough County Commission on the Status of Women then examines each nominee's credentials, and selects six winners - three from middle schools and three from high schools in the county. The Board of County Commissioners recognizes the winners at a ceremony every year.

Watch Video of BOCC Awarding YEA! 2020 Winners

The 60 recipients over the program's 10 years have shown initiative, innovation, and commitment through academics, community service, athletics, performing arts, conservation, and other endeavors.

Gwendolyn "Gwena" Pitt, formerly of Tampa Preparatory School, is a typical YEA! Award winner. In 2012 the high-school senior earned recognition in the Volunteer or Community Service category. Among her accomplishments: volunteering at All Children's Hospital, co-chairing Ambassadors of Goodwill Metropolitan Ministries, serving as a Student Council representative, and raising money to help finance a dental student's education in the Dominican Republic.

A 2016 graduate of High Point University in North Carolina, Gwena now is a graphic designer in San Francisco, California. "I think about that award a lot," she says. "Sometimes, as a high school student, you need that push, that acknowledgement. Somebody's noticing."

The YEA! Award helped inspire her to keep reaching out. At High Point she was a member of the co-ed Alpha Phi Omega national service fraternity, worked with local Boys & Girls Clubs, and went on mission trips to Guatemala. In San Francisco she does marketing for the nonprofit SF Jazz, which indulges jazz fans in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. She also does graphic design and social media work.

"It was a special moment for me," she says of receiving a YEA! Award.

Past recipients have excelled at colleges and universities, attended medical and law schools, and become leaders in their chosen fields and communities. 

"Never underestimate yourself," says Liat Sanz Martinez, who took the Leadership category among high school applicants in 2011. The Freedom High School graduate earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Florida and law degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago John Marshall Law School. "Have confidence and believe that you can achieve your goals no matter how big or small they are," she says.

All students who live in Hillsborough County are eligible to compete for YEA! Awards. Due to the pandemic this year's winners attended a virtual presentation featuring a video with their prerecorded comments.

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