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Vergennes teen honored as 2011 Youth of the Year

 
VERGENNES — Like many 15-year-olds, Vergennes Union High School sophomore Kaitlin Leroux-Eastman listens to hip-hop, loves to hang around with her buddies, and enjoys the Twilight book series.
But probably not too many of the Vergennes resident’s peers match her nearly 200 hours of community service in the past year, conduct a church choir, and already have mapped out their college choice — St. Michael’s — and career plans — teaching music or French.
Because of that service, much of it to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, the city-area youth club chose Leroux-Eastman as its 2011 Youth of the Year. On April 14, she will head to Montpelier and attempt to become the fifth Vergennes club youth winner since 2003 to become the Vermont Boys & Girls Clubs’ Youth of the Year. (See related story.)
Club teen coordinator Billy Waller said Leroux-Eastman has not only shown unusual devotion to the city club and to the Vergennes community since moving here in late 2008, but also remarkable poise and focus on her future.
 “She’s not afraid to dream. She does dream big. But she’s also narrow. She’s not someone who says, ‘I just want fancy cars and a husband and all that.’ She says, ‘I want to get my education first. I want to do this with my education. I want to teach. I want to make sure while I’m teaching I leave myself time to volunteer,’” Waller said. “She knows the things that have helped her in life, and she wants to make sure she passes those on.”
Leroux-Eastman said early-life challenges — she readily acknowledges her biological parents struggled with drugs and legal problems — meant she had a lot to learn when she came to Vergennes, even after solid early education at Middlebury’s Bridge School.
She sees what she does for the club, her church, the Bixby Library, and drug- and alcohol-prevention efforts at VUHS as returning what she has been given, as well as worth doing in its own right.
“I want to give back to a community that I live in and a community that has taught me so much, and I think I also want to show other kids community service skills and (the value of) doing community service,” Leroux-Eastman said. “I felt … you were gaining some kind of gift back as well.”
‘OK TO BE A KID’
She said the club is an organization that helped point her in the right direction. The woman she now calls her mother, Bonnie Hearthstone, is her biological aunt. In 2008, she moved Leroux-Eastman and two sisters to Vergennes in part because of the club.
“The Boys & Girls Club was really our selling point, I think, because even in 8th grade I didn’t want to be home alone, which came from my biological parents, the choices they had made,” Leroux-Eastman said. 
Waller and fellow club teen worker Kathy Ciociola noticed that Leroux-Eastman at first didn’t really interact with other club members.
“She came to us very mature, and we had to get her to act more like a kid,” Waller said.
Leroux-Eastman explained why. When she was about 1 year old in New York state, her mom was jailed. Leroux-Eastman would often spend weeks at a time with her grandmother. A permanent arrangement with her aunt was not made final until she was 7.
Before then, Leroux-Eastman said she “had to have more of an adult mind-set, because I couldn’t always trust my biological parents to have the adult mind-set they should have had.”
She had a lot on her plate.
“I wasn’t on my own, but I felt I had to take care of my biological parents, and that I couldn’t be a kid, because if I was a kid I was helpless,” Leroux-Eastman said. “So it was hard for me to communicate with other kids, because I didn’t want to put in a position of acting like a kid and therefore having all the decisions made for me.”
Leroux-Eastman said Waller and Ciociola helped her come out of her shell.
“I think that Kathy noted it first, because I could sit down for two hours and talk with her. And she was fine with that, but I didn’t really talk with other kids much … I just didn’t have those other skills,” she said. “Kathy would say to me, ‘It’s OK to be a kid.’”
Now, Leroux-Eastman said she “absolutely” has many friends, and “other kids can communicate better with me.”
LESSONS LEARNED
After the Boys & Club helped her to let down her guard, her schoolwork improved — Leroux-Eastman gets “mostly As and Bs,” but admits her math grades don’t come as easily.
But she learned to ask for help.
“My math teachers all know that math is a struggle for me, and they are willing to help me before school, after school, during our call-back periods,” she said. “I’ve had to learn to seek them out … I especially think I didn’t want a teacher to see a weakness in me.”
Now, her teachers have inspired her to pursue that profession.
“Teachers play such an important role in how kids develop and in the kind of adults they become,” she said. “The adults I see as role models are teachers. Just the kindness teachers have shown me and how much they care about what they do has inspired me, because I would love to be somebody who somebody can (look at and) say, ‘Yeah, she helped me. She was a role model.’”
One teacher, VUHS choral director Karen Jordan, suggested Leroux-Eastman try out for regional singing performances during her first year in the VUHS program. Leroux-Eastman made it that year and in each of the past two years.
And when St. Peter’s Catholic Church lacked a choir conductor for early Sunday Mass, she took on that task. Waller said it’s a testament to Leroux-Eastman’s poise and presence that she was fully accepted in that role.
“She’s well respected over at her church. They don’t have qualms taking directions from a 15-year-old,” Waller said.
Past Youth of the Year winners have had solid volunteering résumés, Waller said, but nothing like the 186 hours Leroux-Eastman conservatively listed.
“If you compare it to other kids we’ve had it do over the years … it dwarfs those numbers, because she has her hands in a lot of things,” Waller said. “Here, any time we do any kind of event, whether it be family bingo night, or we do any kind of drug or alcohol prevention type thing, she’s involved with the planning; she’s involved with the advertising of it, which means her running around putting posters up; she’s at the events; and she’ll do any of the post-work that needs to happen.”
Leroux-Eastman understandably seems most passionate talking about substance-abuse prevention efforts — her parents began using as teens. 
“That’s why I want to be part of those groups. I’ve seen it first-hand, and I’ve experienced it,” she said. “If we can reach out to other teens, maybe we can stop it, or at least slow down a process that can potentially affect their whole lives and the lives of others, too.”
Waller said some of her efforts get less notice. For example, for years she has walked with special-needs club members from city schools to the club’s teen or elementary-school age headquarters, both of which on School Street.
“She didn’t even think of that as volunteering,” he said.
Now, Leroux-Eastman laughs about her worries about the club before she first attended, although she is concerned some still share the mistaken perceptions she quickly shed when she walked in after her first day of school at VUHS.
“I thought the Boys & Girls Club was a place where a rougher crowd hung out, so I was a little bit nervous,” she said. “I was absolutely shocked. The kids who came, and who still come, are all really nice people. I was just shocked at the kindness, and the staff members really care for the kids.”
Now, she is thrilled to be chosen to go to Montpelier on the club’s behalf.
“It’s a great honor to be asked to represent the Boys & Girls Club,” Leroux-Eastman said. “And I feel a great sense of trust the club has put into me.”
Even though she will be younger than most of her half-dozen competitors there, Waller believes Leroux-Eastman will hold her own. He said she always presents herself well, and is prepared for the mid-April event.
“Usually I’m chasing down speeches, and I’m helping kids with writing them,” he said. “Hers is done.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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