SALEM — The future of Salem was on display at the local Boys and Girls Club Tuesday night, when hundreds of families gathered to honor the accomplishments of area youth.
During the club's first annual Dinner of the Champions event, sponsored by Peoples United Bank, club members who excelled in various programs over the past school year were presented with certificates of accomplishment and offered words of encouragement from community leaders.
But the star of the evening was undoubtedly one very special 13-year-old who the club's executive director Michael Centor described as "an absolute pleasure."
Nicholas "Niko" Karantonis, a local middle school student, was honored with the club's Russell F. Ingram Award for Excellence.
The new award, named after one of the club's most noted benefactors, will be presented annually to a club member who embraces the club's life-enhancing programs, demonstrates community service and has continued to build their character through various club activities and experiences.
Karantonis is the vice president of the Torch Club, a community service and leadership program for preteens chartered by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and recently attended the Torch Club Regional Summit in Nashua.
He's also a member of the club's Science of Sports team, and in May competed in the regional event held at Gillette Stadium. As part of the competition, Karantonis worked closely with volunteers from Raytheon over the course of five months to complete a project on the physics of skateboarding. The team finished in sixth place after a close competition against 23 other teams from around New England.
That's just part of what Karantonis does at the club, according to staff members.
"He's constantly volunteering at our events, especially our Trivia Nights," Centor said.
Karantonis said he joined the Boys & Girls Club at age 6, and was initially hesitant to get involved.
"It was so huge and so unfamiliar," the Woodbury Middle School honors student said. "Now the club is a second home to me, and it's taught me how to be a leader."
Ingram said it's moments like Tuesday night that make him proud to be a lifelong Salem resident.
"It's always so wonderful to see so many young people contributing to the welfare of our town," he said.
Serving as the evening's keynote speaker was Brent Whittaker, assistant principal at Woodbury Middle School.
Injured in a life-altering car crash shortly after graduating high school, Whittaker shared his experiences overcoming obstacles, which in his case meant adjusting to life in a wheelchair while pursuing a career in education.
Whittaker also happens to be a former Boys & Girls Club staff member.
"All of you are here because you chose to be part of a group that does something special," he told the crowd.
His advice for the dozens of young faces in the room? "You should always be grateful," Whittaker told them. "Be a good person, be someone of good character."
"For me, working hard and never giving up was the key to success," he added.
Centor said he's hoping to make the Dinner of the Champions an annual tradition at the club.
"Celebrating our youth and all their accomplishments is my favorite part of my job," he said. "And it's been an amazing year here."