Award honors student’s ‘full circle’ growth

VERGENNES — When Ferrisburgh’s Kelsey Howard first came to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes five years ago, she was an 11-year-old so shy she admits she spent a year doing little more than sitting in a corner with club supervisor Kathy Ciociola.
On April 7 in Montpelier, Howard, now a 16-year-old Vergennes Union High School junior, met with a panel of six adult strangers who were judging the Vermont Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year contest. Howard clearly had developed the poise and confidence to make a positive impression in that unfamiliar setting — she won.
The “total transformation” Howard has made in those five years, Ciociola said in an interview the next day, along with Howard and club youth supervisor Deb Hall, has been remarkable.
“Here was a girl who could hardly talk to anybody else in the room, and when I say that she would sit there literally with me and not really engage with other people,” Ciociola said. “(And she) stood on the podium last night and thanked the judges and us and everybody else for choosing her. And she was up there so confident. And it was just full circle. It made me cry.”
Howard had earlier won the Vergennes club’s Youth of the Year contest, which like the statewide competition is judged on an individual’s character and contributions to the club, community, school and family.
Howard said that experience helped her prepare for last week, but that the interview was still daunting. Still, at this point in her life, Howard said she had the faith to overcome her doubts.
“When I walked in the room first yesterday I was really nervous, knees shaking,” Howard said. “But they were very welcoming. When I sat down they asked me questions, and I was comfortable answering them. And at the end, they had me stand up and give my speech. And I had it memorized, and I just spoke from my heart.”
Howard’s win continued a remarkable run for the Vergennes club. There are seven Boys & Girls Clubs in Vermont, and since the Vergennes club first started sending its local winners to the statewide Youth of the Year competition 10 years ago, four of its candidates have won.
Vergennes club director Mike Reiderer said the organization and its adult supervisors can take pride in the outcomes.
“When we look at our Youth of the Year program, it’s a good measuring stick of our success,” Reiderer said. “It’s kind of a long-term evaluation for us, that we can keep kids around for four or five years, and they stand out from among kids from all over the state.”
He believes Howard provides a good example. Reiderer said one reason she stood out last week is because the club played a role in her success, and that Howard responded by making others — especially those who needed it — feel welcome at its School Street clubhouse.
“It has a lot to do with the influence the club had on her life,” he said. “Over the course of a couple years, she really came out of her shell … She’s really blossomed.”
Club youth supervisor Deb Hall sees a lot of Howard as she volunteers at the club center for younger members that Hall oversees, often helping the grade-school students there with homework. She’s also a member of the VUHS varsity cheerleading team that Hall coaches.
Hall said a key moment came when Ciociola said to Howard that she should work with the younger members, and Howard took the chance.
“It started back when (Ciociola) suggested to her that if she wanted to work with little kids she should stop over at the youth center,” Hall said. “Just Kathy suggesting she take that chance and come over there opened up all kinds of things for her.”
Howard, the second youngest of six children, already had spent a lot of time baby-sitting her younger sister and other children, and agreed. Now she wants to attend a Vermont college and study to become an elementary school teacher.
“I love working with children. That’s my passion,” Howard said. “It’s just how they learn and make friends and grow. I like to see them grow like I did here.”
Howard then began to sign up for more club activities.
“When I joined Keystone Club, it’s like a leadership group, and we were planning teen events,” she said. “That helped me make friends and start interacting with my peers.”
All along, Howard said, club supervisors like Ciociola, Hall, Reiderer and Billy Waller had her back.
“The staff members are very helpful raising my confidence,” she said.
Soon, Howard was the one helping others who were unsure about how to fit in at the club, or needed a sympathetic ear.
“Kelsey will embrace someone who looks like they need a little more TLC,” Ciociola said. “That’s a wonderful, wonderful talent.”
And she decided to try out for the Commodore cheerleading team, one of the best in the state, even though she lacked experience. Hall was surprised — as many as 1,200 people watch that team perform at some basketball games, a far cry from the corner of the clubhouse. But Hall said Howard learned quickly.
“She had to work extra hard, because the extra girls already had the background and experience. And because the other girls liked her so much … the girls were willing to put in the extra time to bring her up to speed,” she said.
Howard said by the time she entered high school, she believed she could do it.
“It was nothing I could see myself doing at first,” she said. “But it was something that would challenge myself, and I like challenges. So I challenged myself and succeeded.”
Howard had little difficulty meeting the award’s family and school criteria. At home, Howard does much of the housework, baby-sits constantly and gives money back to her family to help pay bills, and, according to club officials, has been a family rock when things have not always gone smoothly.
“Kelsey is as dedicated to her family as one could imagine,” Reiderer said.
At VUHS Howard helps the school nurse, and also works with third-grade teachers at Vergennes Union Elementary School. With two older brothers in the military, she also came up with the idea to put up a world map outside the gymnasium that shows where VUHS graduates in the armed services are deployed around the world.
“I don’t get to see (my brothers) much. And I thought it would be nice for people to have something to look at when they came in the school to realize how many of our former students and relatives are actually deployed,” Howard said.
When it all added up, Howard said she was thrilled with last week’s award.
“It was big. It was a lot of work, and I succeeded,” she said. “I was very proud and honored.”
This July in New York City, Howard will step up to the next level of competition — the regional Youth of the Year contest. No Vergennes club winner has claimed that honor.
Regardless of this summer’s result, Howard said her victory last week is one more reminder of how far her larger outlook on life has come in the past five years.
“I’m very confident,” Howard said. “I know I can succeed if I try.”
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected].

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