“You will never be anything in life,” Clifton Biddwell said, hard eyes glittering under the bright lights at the Youth of the Year competition Thursday night. “Your dreams will never be true.”
He stared at the row of judges as he continued, “You will become a high school dropout and drug addict, just like your father was.”
The judges met Biddwell’s gaze as he took a breath.
“These are words that were spoken over my life for a long time I actually believed,” Biddwell said. “I believed [at the time] that these words defined who I am and will be later on in life.”
This was Biddwell’s third attempt at the local Youth of the Year competition. Two years ago, he competed. A year ago, he was named first runner-up. Thursday night the judges selected Biddwell to represent Cleveland at the state competition.
“It is a long-awaited victory,” Biddwell said after the competition. “It feels so great.”
He admitted to sizing up the other contestants beforehand. A mixture of nerves and confidence filled the young competitors. Chloey Tatum, Richard Ben-Judah, Embry Barks and Jessica Gilbert shared anxious smiles prior to the program. Biddwell wondered how it would turn out.
When he was introduced, Biddwell unleashed the speech which had been three years in the making.
He explained the struggle he faced throughout his life: Being legally homeless while staying in a hotel with his family; wondering where his next meal would come from; and dealing with a father’s addiction.
He felt as if he was another statistic. His was a boyhood in the projects. He wondered whether he had a future.
Smiling, Biddwell informed the Youth of the Year judges how his dark days became brighter with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland.
He was 6 years old.
“There, I encountered a group of individuals that actually believed in me, even when I couldn’t believe in myself,” Biddwell said. “I recall … sitting in [Brian Lessig’s] office and him saying, ‘Clifton, you can be successful, because of your desire to live a life of worth and become a story of success and greatness.’”
A feeling of invincibility filled Biddwell. He felt as if he could conquer the world. Reality made a crashing return once Biddwell returned home.
His reality was a mother sitting on a hotel bed crying out to God because she could not provide for her kids.
Life at home was almost a complete opposite of his time at the Boys & Girls Club, or as Biddwell referred to the organization, “my club.”
“The place where this reality didn’t matter, but where the reality of success and greatness was cherished,” Biddwell said. “And the words from a hateful father, words that were meant to break me down and destroy me, instead inspired me to live a life of worth, and to become a story of success.”
According to Biddwell, his story of success starts May 9. It will be the day he graduates from Cleveland High School. His next step will take him to Lee University where he will study business administration and public relations.
Teen Center Director Wyatt Bevis watched Biddwell grow over the last two years of the Youth of the Year competition.
He said the Cleveland High senior was nervous last year. Bevis said he seemed worried to let his true self out in front of everyone. This year was a completely different story.
“He dropped the walls, which he doesn’t usually do,” Bevis said. “Clifton is a fantastic volunteer and a leader. Out of the 90-plus kids that come to my club on a daily basis, if I need something done around the club, he is the kid who comes to mind first.”
With more than 1,000 hours of volunteer service and a life of trials, Biddwell told the judges he wants to open a nonprofit to help broken families.
“So today, I stand before you; born a kid, settled for failure and transformed by my Boys & Girls Club into a successful individual whose desire is to reach his full potential and to be successful in life,” Biddwell said. “My name is Clifton Biddwell, and this is my story of greatness.”