For 18-year-old, a national honor and a full ride to college

Motorists pulled to the shoulder Thursday, straining to see just who merited the police escort through town.

This isn’t basketball season, after all.

Behind the police cruiser, an overwhelmed 18-year-old Trei Dudley couldn’t stop smiling. Her escort stopped at a Boys and Girls Club — a childhood refuge for Trei and hundreds of other kids in Lawrence. The 12 clubs in the city provide a place of safety and stability from sometimes turbulent home lives.

The Lawrence clubs have been abuzz since Wednesday when Trei was named youth of the year by Boys and Girls Clubs of America in Washington, D.C. She will serve as national youth spokesman for the next year.

“It’s all thanks to them,” Trei said, gesturing to about a hundred club employees, community volunteers, family members and neighborhood children who gathered to welcome her home and shower her in hugs and flowers.

Around the Lawrence clubs, Trei has been around longer than some employees.

She was 5 years old when she entered her first Boys and Girls Club. Club employees didn’t know it at first, but the club was the only place where she could be a kid and goof off.

Club employees eventually got her talking. They let her express her feelings. They learned she’d had a difficult home life, and that by then, with her mother working two jobs to support Trei and two younger siblings, Trei had taken on more responsibility at home.

“It was definitely the Boys and Girls Club that told me I had to keep pushing,” she said. “And when I did keep pushing, I got more mature.”

Club program manager Jen Williams has encouraged Trei and others to tell their stories to help the younger members. When Trei was old enough, she became a junior staff member at the club and worked as a paid staff member the last few years.

Her mom, Cathy Brittain, said Trei walked daily from Lawrence Free State High School to her job at the club. She also volunteered at several places throughout high school while also serving as a cheerleader and earning a 3.5 grade point average.

This fall she entered the University of Arkansas, where she’s studying business management.

It was a big challenge moving so far from home, she said. “I kind of second-guessed myself a little bit because my family has always been so close and I don’t want to be the reason that there is a split,” she said.

Her mom, who has been a big source of inspiration, pushed her to make the move. “She said that it was time for me to do something for myself because I’m always doing something for everybody else,” Trei said.

The award means college is paid in full. As the national youth of the year, Trei receives several gifts, including $11,000 in college scholarships from Tupperware, up to a $50,000 scholarship from the Rick and Susan Goings Foundation and a new car from Toyota, club officials said.

Back in Lawrence, Trei’s mentors don’t wonder whether she’ll be successful in her chosen career. They just wonder how many people she’ll influence and touch along the way.

“I can’t wait to see what she’s going to do in 10 years,” Williams said. “I can only imagine what she’s going to do when she graduates college.”