An 18-year-old Columbia Falls woman has been selected as the Youth of the Year by the Boys and Girls Club of Glacier Country. The past two selections came from Kalispell, executive director Alan Sempf said.
Tawny Begay’s personal life story is sad but inspiring. A member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota, she came to Columbia Falls when she was six as her family fell apart. After time in a youth home, she was adopted by her aunt and uncle here in Columbia Falls, but “things went downhill after that,” she said.
When she was 14, Tawny and her 10-year-old brother were sent to the Flathead Youth Home. Most of the children there had violated probation, run away or somehow got in trouble, she said. Tawny and her brother were guilty of just being orphans.
“Up until then, it had been a life of hard knocks, and I was a pretty tough kid,” she said. “I didn’t have a bond with anyone. I was selfish and didn’t care about other people. I never knew what it was like to have a family where I belonged and felt wanted.”
She knew of a family in Columbia Falls who would take her in — her best friend since fifth grade and her friend’s mother and grandmother. But they were white and she was Native American and the state social services would not allow it.
“It was so unfair,” Tawny recalled. “I had done so well at the youth home, a full 360. At first, I had faked it, but then I started to feel wanted.”
Soon, Tawny and her brother were shipped off to Arizona to live with an aunt and uncle.
“I hated it. Everyday I asked to go back to Montana, but they told me to stick it out for six months,” she said. “I felt such a connection with the youth home. I had never felt so loved and safe, and then they ripped me out of that life and placed me with people I didn’t know.”
A social worker in Arizona told Tawny to tough it out until she was 18 or go sit in jail as a runaway, she said. By that time, another foster girl in the family was making her life miserable, so Tawny told her aunt everything and threatened to run away.
“She told me to go ahead, so I hugged my little brother good-bye and left,” Tawny said.
Tawny had no money and stayed with a friend’s family for a month as she continued to attend school. But one day, officers arrived, handcuffed her in front of her schoolmates and put her in a juvenile center.
Three days later she was back in her aunt’s home, but all her belongings were missing or destroyed. Tawny got a hold of a social worker in Montana who “definitely changed my life,” she said. Tawny soon had plane tickets back to Montana.
“She really wanted to make a difference,” Tawny said. “We made a timeline of my life on a giant piece of paper — 23 moves in 16 years.”
Tawny spent about six more months in the Flathead Youth Home before being placed with the foster family she always wanted to be with. But her little brother was still back in Arizona suffering from isolation. Tawny went back to talk to him.
“I asked him if he wanted to come back to Montana, and he said yes,” she said. “I told him I could make it happen.”
Her brother returned to Montana and now attends eighth grade in Columbia Falls, where he plays football.
Tawny had fond memories of attending the Boys and Girls Club in elementary school and started volunteering last year at their facility on Fourth Avenue West in Columbia Falls. She had learned a lot about community service while at the youth home — making food at churches and raking leaves or shoveling snow for elderly people. Now she’s a paid employee at the Boys and Girls Club.
Tawny moved out of her foster home after she got pregnant. She has a 4 1/2-month-old son and lives with her boyfriend, who splits babysitting chores with Tawny. She’s finishing up high school at the Columbia Falls alternative high school and has taken some college courses at Flathead Valley Community College. She’s also renewed ties with family members who live here. Life is much improved.
She says she wants to attend cosmetology school, but she also wants to be a social worker someday. Her advice to people: “When you’re going through a tough time, remember tomorrow is another day. Just get past the bad day and look to the future. Always try to make the future better. God doesn’t put you through what you can’t handle.”
As the Boys and Girls Club’s Youth of the Year, Tawny will represent the local organization at the state conference in Helena and give talks to groups around the Flathead, Sempf said. Tawny says she’s comfortable talking in public.
“I gave a speech to the United Way during the Bibler Gardens auction when I was 16,” she said.