Growing up, Gissel Gonzalez Aguilar lived with what she called her “complete family”—both of her parents, an older brother and younger twin sisters. “To me, my family was perfect,” she said. “But I had no idea how dysfunctional my family really was.” Her father was an alcoholic and substance abuser. He would regularly return home late at night, brutally hit her mother, and then tuck young Gissel into bed. The tragic cycle continued until Gissel was nine years old, when her father finally left for good. “That was the last time I ever saw him,” she said. “He left us with nothing but a broken home, a pile of bills to pay and no way to pay them.” But her mother wasn’t about to let her family fall apart. She found a job making minimum wage and somehow managed to keep their family of five together.
That same year, Gissel joined the Boys & Girls Club. She was hesitant and shy at first, but the Club quickly became her second home. “I felt so welcome there,” she said. “On many days, I was the first one to arrive and the last one to leave.”
At the Club, Gissel made new friends, discovered an artistic talent, got academic support and learned to make healthy choices. “In so many ways, the Club helped fill the void that my father left as the staff partnered with my mother to help raise me and my siblings. They became like my extended family. They were always there for us.”
Gissel has remained an active Club member over the years. Today, she is a 17-year-old senior at Coral Academy of Science on track to graduate with special honors this coming spring. This fall, she will join her older brother in college where she plans to study to become a nuclear medicine technologist. Despite the challenges she has faced in her past, Gissel faces her future with excitement and optimism.
“As I got older and realized the damage my father had done to our family, I feared that I might one day turn out like him,” she said. “But the Club led me down the right path. The Club has helped me realize that I’m not a victim of my circumstances or my past, but that I can create my own future.”
As Youth of the Year, Gissel will head to the Nevada State Youth of the Year competition on February 17-18 in Las Vegas where she will compete against youth from other Nevada Boys & Girls Clubs. The winner of the State competition will go on to the Pacific Region competition in Southern California, and then to the National competition in Washington, DC.