Just one year ago, 15-year-old Zoe Frauen was homeless and hungry, living in a modest motel room with her mother and younger brother, and constantly searching for something to eat.
Conditions for the now-sophomore at Lead-Deadwood High School in South Dakota would have led some young women to despair, particularly after Frauen was turned away from a food pantry when she was told her family didn't meet requirements.
But for Frauen, adversity spurred her into action to fight homelessness and hunger in her own community. Today, the bespectacled, sandy-haired girl is proof of one person's power to change lives. And for her tireless efforts, she was given the title of the Boys & Girls Clubs' 2017 South Dakota State Youth of the Year.
As reported by the Rapid City Journal, Frauen credits the Boys & Girls Clubs for making her turnaround possible. "I walked [into the] club, and it changed my life forever," she said.
The young woman, mature well beyond her years, looked her interviewer straight in the eye and said she knows she is not alone. Her research found that 30 percent of the children at her after-school club live in poverty and 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals at school.
"There are too many of us going hungry in my community," Frauen said. "So I set out to make a change."
Frauen was actually among the first dozen members to join the Boys & Girls Club of Lead-Deadwood when it opened in June 2014. She found a safe place where she could find herself, amid a gaggle of younger members who were eager to gain a mentor. The club now serves 386 youths.
After garnering a $500 grant from ConAgra's "Make Your Mark on Hunger" program, Frauen formed a committee, recruited volunteers, established a budget, assembled advertising and promotion, and staged a free community dinner on her birthday last April. The idea was to raise awareness about hunger. More than 100 people showed up at a local church to enjoy spaghetti, salad and garlic bread, capped by brownie sundaes.
"It felt really good knowing I could accomplish that," Frauen said last week after taking a break from helping a 9-year-old with homework at the club. "And we served my favorite food – spaghetti."
Frauen's personal efforts to combat homelessness and hunger, and serving as a mentor and tutor at the club, are not the only activities that have captured attention.
At nearby Lead-Deadwood High School, Frauen competes on the speech and debate teams, plays clarinet in the band, is a Key Club member, and serves as secretary-treasurer of the student council. In her "off hours," she works 12-17 hours per week at a minimum-wage job at a gift shop on Deadwood's Main Street, a pursuit that allows her to pay her own cell phone bill and attempt to keep her 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee running.
And, from a personal standpoint, her family's life has improved. She, her brother and mother now live in a 3-bedroom house near the high school. Her brother, Zefri, an 8-year-old third-grader, has become a member of the club.
"It's easier to look back now knowing it was just temporary," said Frauen. "I mean, I have my own bedroom and I feel more secure."
That growing confidence has led Frauen to declare that she plans to one day attend the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where she wants to major in communications and counseling.
"She's already my counselor," her best friend and classmate, Zoe Keehn, said with a laugh.
"Zoe understands what Boys & Girls Clubs are all about and, most importantly, she understands the impact a club has on the community," said Anne Rogers-Popejoy, the club's unit director. "Zoe is so special because she embodies all of the characteristics that Boys & Girls Clubs strive to impart to youth. She is intelligent, she is resilient, and Zoe is so kind."
Frauen won the preliminary Youth of the Year competition among contestants from clubs in Hot Springs, Hill City and Lead-Deadwood. Recently, the state Youth of the Year competition was held in Pierre, S.D.
"Fighting hunger and homelessness became my passion," Frauen told state legislators, agency officials, lobbyists and Lt. Gov. Matt Michels who gathered to judge the competition. "I set out to make a change. I used the club as a resource and hosted a free community dinner to raise awareness about hunger."
When Frauen was announced as the winner of the 2017 South Dakota Youth of the Year award in Pierre, Rogers-Popejoy said Frauen gasped. Two other club members at her table broke down and cried.
When Frauen's win was announced at the club, "the kids screamed so loud you couldn't hear anything," Rogers-Popejoy said. "She's their hero. And it's because she's just like them."
After calling her grandmother with the news, Frauen phoned her mother and asked, "Is this the mom of the South Dakota State Youth of the Year?"
"I don't know, am I?" responded her mother, Tammie Ded. "My mom was really excited," Frauen said.
The award, complete with a $5,000 college scholarship, makes Frauen eligible to represent South Dakota at the Midwest Region Youth of the Year contest, sponsored by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, in July in Chicago. The winner of the regional contest will receive a $10,000 annual college scholarship, renewable for up to four years.
Regional winners will then compete in Washington, D.C., in September for the title of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America Youth of the Year.
In the meantime, Frauen will continue working, preparing her presentation and essays, playing in band, competing in speech and debate, toiling at her part-time job, helping raise her brother, maintaining her 3.6 GPA at the high school, and tutoring underprivileged youngsters at her favorite club.
"Zoe has an amazing story," Rogers-Popejoy concluded. "She works to combat homelessness and hunger, something she's witnessed first-hand. She's definitely a success story. Zoe doesn't just survive, she thrives."