Elijah Wesley, an 18-year-old senior at Rincon High School, is always told to be somebody.

It's something his guardians have instilled in him.

Wesley has managed to keep it all together despite a chaotic childhood that included his mom's incarceration, his 4-year-old sister's death and watching his older brother get into trouble.

He does not focus on the bad.

Wesley is a leader on his track, basketball and football teams, gets good grades, mentors younger students and was recently accepted into the University of Arizona.

His ability to overcome adversity and contribute to his community in a positive way earned him the 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major Award, given annually by the MLK Celebration Committee.

The award is a nod to King's 1968 speech called "Drum Major Instinct" in which he expresses his desire to be remembered not for his accomplishments, but for his desire do the right thing.

"We developed this (award) 26 years ago to recognize people in the community who give unselfishly of themselves for the betterment of our community," said Clarence Boykins, who heads the committee.

Wesley's selflessness can be traced back to the days when he took care of his sisters.

"Food, when it was there, went to my younger sisters. I loved them and really did not mind going without so they could have it," Wesley wrote in an essay as part of the award application.

During the summers, Wesley serves as a mentor to incoming freshman as part of a program operated through the Tucson Unified School District's African American Student Services Department.

"Since I was a kid growing up, I've always wanted to give back because a lot of things were given to me, and I always felt the need to do what I have to do to help other people," he said.

Christopher Golston, who works for African American Student Services and is Wesley's track coach, has seen him grow into a leader over the years.

"Sometimes he's a quiet leader, and when it's needed, he becomes a very outspoken leader that is really able to mobilize his peers to do the right thing," Golston said.

Golston said he's seen Wesley push himself athletically to become a better runner and challenge himself academically by taking rigorous Advanced Placement courses.

"I'm really proud of him. He's gone through a lot of obstacles in his own personal life, but he's been able to overcome those," Golston said.

Wesley says he's used the challenges in his life to grow into a better person.

"When I was younger, my mom used to always tell me that somebody somewhere has it worse than you do, and I just look at the stuff that's happened to me as an advantage because it gives me a step ahead, having been through what I've been through. That's how I use it," he said.

Wesley was presented with the award at a ceremony last Wednesday.

Other recipients of the award have included Anita Smith-Etheridge, whose son was murdered and who has become an anti-violence advocate, Boykins said.

Pima County Juvenile Court received an award for its work to help find alternative paths for children who don't belong in the system.

And former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was given an honorary award for work in the community.

On StarNet: View photos of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on StarNet's historical gallery at azstarnet.com/gallery


Tucson's Martin Luther King Day march has a new route this year.

It begins at 9 a.m. today at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Student Center on the University of Arizona campus, 1322 E. First St.

Participants are asked to arrive at 8:30 a.m. for a "move your body" exercise inspired by first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity.

Marchers will head north on North Mountain Avenue to Speedway and circle back to the UA Mall along North Campbell Avenue.

Speeches and entertainment will be held on a stage east of Old Main from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

An MLK Day volunteer fair today at Reid Park features a Red Cross blood drive, a book drive and an opportunity to write letters to U.S. troops.

Walk-in blood donors are welcome, and the Literacy Connects book drive will accept books for any age group, said organizer Kristi Pallack.

Various community organizations, including AmeriCorps and Beads of Courage, will host activities and enlist volunteers at the event.

The fair runs from 10 a.m. to noon at the southwest corner of the park, near North Country Club Road and East 22nd Street, in Ramadas 10, 14 and 15. The blood drive is from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

A singalong to songs that inspired the civil-rights movement will run from 3 to 5 p.m. today at Temple Emanu-El, 225 N. Country Club Road.

Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at vcruz@azstarnet.com or 573-4224.