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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Freshman overcomes adversity to compete for national honor

Marquette freshman Tommy Walls Jr., right, is honored by President Barack Obama with fellow nominees for National Youth of the Year. Photo courtesy Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee.

This is part of an ongoing series about intriguing individuals at Marquette.

At the age of 7, Tommy Walls Jr. became an adult.

While most youngsters were busy learning how to ride a bike or worrying about having to write in cursive, Walls had to take care of his mom.

“My mom was ill,” Walls said. “She was not stable in her mind.”

Walls grew up on the East Side of Detroit, a city known for its car manufacturers, rabid sports fans and gang-infested neighborhoods. At a young age, Walls recognized that if he was ever to make something out of himself, he needed to get out of Detroit.

“I knew I wasn’t getting the best education there,” he said. “My mom was really sick and it was affecting my education.”

So, at age 14, Walls decided to live with relatives in Milwaukee. It was not an easy decision for a young man who had not even begun high school yet.

“(The hardest part about moving) was wondering who was going to take care of my mom,” said Walls, who did not go into more detail about her illness. “But I told her I had to leave.”

That is when the American success story that is Tommy Walls Jr. begins.

Walls arrived in Milwaukee to get his life back on track. He was only concerned with getting the best grades he could at Montessori High School and was not interested in getting involved in extracurricular activities.

“I didn’t really trust anyone there,” he said.

That is when Michael Waite stepped in.

Waite is the director of the Boys & Girls Club located at Marshall High School. Waite said he hounded Walls to get involved in the Boys and Girls Club for a full school year before Walls relented.

Waite said he recognized sparks of character and leadership in Walls, and knew he could make a difference for Milwaukee’s youth.

Walls jumped full throttle into volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club, so much so that Waite worried that Walls’ academics were going to suffer.

Walls joined the Keystone Club, a youth leadership organization affiliated with the Boys & Girls Club, and got involved with Keystone’s Peers with Impact program. In correlation with that program, Walls traveled around the Milwaukee area making speeches to kids about the harmful affects of marijuana.

Walls also tutored and played sports with the Boys & Girls Club kids after school, and was a mentor to many, Waite said.

“You would always find Tommy helping out the other kids,” Waite said.

Despite Waite’s fear that Walls’ grades could suffer from all his activities, Walls finished Montessori second in his class with a 3.7 grade point average, and earned a full scholarship to Marquette through the Urban Scholars program. He is currently a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Walls’ involvement and dedication, along with his grades, impressed the Boys & Girls Club leadership so much that he was nominated for National Youth of the Year, an award in which the winner receives a $15,000 scholarship and the nominees meet the President of the United States.

Jacqueline Zeledon, the Communication Manager of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee, said the Youth of the Year is by no means an easy award to win. Nominees have to pass through a city, state and regional level before becoming one of the five finalists to go to Washington D.C.

“The Youth of the Year program allows our members to be recognized for their positive development, both as a future adult and young leader,” Zeledon said.

Walls swept the Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Midwest divisions, and flew to Washington for the nationals, which lasted from Sept. 10 to 15. While there, Walls and the four other nominees met with President Barack Obama in the White House and had lunch with Denzel Washington, the national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Club.

“It was unbelievable, I thought I was dreaming,” Walls said of his meeting with President Obama.

Walls did not win the national Youth of the Year Award, but he did earn an additional scholarship that will help him pay off his room and board at Marquette, the only thing the Urban Scholars Award does not cover.

Walls recognizes that it is because of the adversity he has faced in his life that his whirlwind trip to Washington was able to occur.

“I was there because of my past,” he continued. “I never forget where I came from.”

And although his mom may not completely understand all that her son has accomplished, he knows he has done her good.

“Either way, I know she is proud of me,” he said.

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