Mireille Tona helps Chris Mubanzo, 7, of East End School with his homework April 29 at the Boys & Girls Clubs Portland Clubhouse. Tona, a senior at Portland High School, is clubhouse’s Youth of the Year. Contributed / Erin Giwer

When Portland High School senior Mireille Tona first visited the Boys & Girls Clubs Portland Clubhouse on Cumberland Avenue as a sixth-grader, she was looking for a place to go after school. It turned out to be so much more for her.

“When I walked in I saw the energy and the vibe here. There were so many kids running around doing fun things. I thought why not give it a try,” said Tona, who is the Portland club’s 2021 Youth of the Year. “I’ve been coming here since and have never looked back.

The Youth of the Year award is the highest honor the organization bestows at the club level.

“It is something special and it means a lot to me,” she said.

Mireille Tona is in the running for the statewide Youth of the Year award. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

In making the selection, “we are looking for youth who embody the values of the Boys & Girls Clubs and look for leadership, service, commitment to community, academic success and who have a vision for  their future,” said Karen MacDonald, chief operating officer of Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern Maine.

Over the last seven years, Tona, 18, has transitioned from Boys & Girls Club member to a youth leader who “staff looks to to implement programs and events, MacDonald said.

She was chosen from three nominees from the Portland clubhouse.

Tona is a role model for many at the club, which, prior to the pandemic, served more than 200 students a day, primarily from Portland, Programs Director Erin Giwer.

“She is just a genuinely caring about other people and kids,” MacDonald said. “She has great empathy and a real kindness that comes across. She is  someone who is respected by her peers and very much looked to as a role model.”

Before the pandemic Tona, captain of the Portland High School girls varsity basketball team and a member of the National Society of High School Scholars, was “a regular presence at the clubhouse,” MacDonald said, and she helps lead the Smart Girls program for middle school girls that focuses on building relationships, self-esteem and wellness.

Both MacDonald and Giwer said it is critical to have leaders like Tona serve as role models for younger members.

Portland High School girls basketball team captain Mireille Tona, right, guards a Cheverus player at a February game. Tona has secured a position as power forward for the Wheaton College women’s team in the fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald

“The message definitely resonates better with Mirelle sitting across from me when we are having these conversations and lessons with these middle school girls.” Giwer said. “I serve in a leadership role and can say stuff, but the message, I think is heard a lot deeper having her here.”

Most recently, Tona helped Giwer organize the clubhouse’s Olympic Day competition.

Tona plans to study physical therapy at Wheaton College, where she will be a power forward on the women’s basketball team. She was drawn to physical therapy after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament, which connects the thighbone to the shinbone. She worked with physical therapists to recover and keep her dream of collegiate basketball alive.

“When that happened, my dream was crushed, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to play at the next level anymore,” she said.

Tona said she wants to return the favor and help other younger athletes rebound from injury.

The Maine Youth of the Year Award, selected from among the clubhouse winners across the state,  will be named Thursday, May 6. The statewide winner go on to compete in the Northeast region for a chance at the National Youth of the Year title.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America has been naming Youth of the Year since 1947.


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