City sophomore wins youth award
MONTPELIER — Vergennes Union High School sophomore Kaitlin Leroux-Eastman on April 14 won the title of Vermont Boys & Girls Clubs Youth of the Year, becoming the fourth member of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes in the past five years to claim that honor.
Leroux-Eastman, 15, was the youngest of the half-dozen local clubs’ Youths of the Year vying last week in Montpelier for state recognition. She and her competitors were judged on club and community service and their personal character and poise.
Vergennes club director Mike Reiderer said Leroux-Eastman’s composure before a panel of three judges carried the day.
Those judges asked her questions about Leroux-Eastman’s admittedly troubled birth family background, how the Vergennes club has helped her grow and mature, and her extensive community service — including at least 185 hours in the past year to the club, her school, to St. Peter’s Catholic Church and to the Girl Scouts.
Reiderer paraphrased the Boys & Girls Club of America’s regional director, who witnessed her interview and prepared remarks before the judges.
“He said Kaitlin did a phenomenal job. He said, as we’ve seen, she was very poised, confident in herself. She presents herself very well. And that is often one of the key factors that go into the final decision,” he said.
Leroux-Eastman, whose adoptive mother moved the family from Whiting to Vergennes in 2008, in part because the club gave Leroux-Eastman a place to go after school, said the interview part of the process actually helped her overcome her nerves. She felt comfortable when it came time to speak.
“I felt my story had moved them already,” she said.
Leroux-Eastman’s birth parents in her native New York struggled with drugs and alcohol, and with the law. Much of her community service now focuses on the dangers of substance abuse; she said she makes that effort because she understands the issue first-hand.
By practicing her presentation in advance, including an appearance before the Vergennes City Council, Leroux-Eastman said she was ready to speak from notes and not just read a prepared statement. She believes that gave her an advantage by allowing her to engage the judges.
“It was more personal, more heartfelt,” she said.
But Leroux-Eastman said the day was more than just a competition. The local Youths of the Year toured the State House in the morning as a group, and she also enjoyed meeting her peers, learning their stories, how their clubs had helped them and how they had helped their clubs.
“All of us were competitors … but it didn’t feel like that,” she said. “It was a lovely experience.”
In the afternoon, judging occurred in a Montpelier law office, and then all the candidates were honored at a banquet at the Capital Plaza hotel. After all once again made their presentation, Leroux-Eastman was named the winner.
Leroux-Eastman said she was happy with her performance, but did not expect the result.
“I was surprised. I was the youngest. There was only one other sophomore. Everybody else was juniors and seniors,” she said.
Leroux-Eastman will head to New York in July and compete for the regional Youth of the Year title vs. 13 other local winners from Northeast states and military bases and Puerto Rico.
She said she is simply looking forward to a trip to the city to meet more of her peers.
“I would love to see how other Boys & Girls Clubs are impacting other kids in other communities,” Eastman-Leroux said.
Previous Vergennes state winners — Kelsey Howard in 2010, Monique Simpson in 2008, Belinda Hall in 2007 and Sara Donnelly in 2003 — have enjoyed the trip, but have not earned regional recognition.
Reiderer said Leroux-Eastman could take the next step, both because of the “wide breadth of her community service” and her composure.
“She certainly fills the requirements for a Youth of a Year, whether that be representing a community or a regional level,” he said.
Regardless, Reiderer said the success of the Vergennes-area club in the competition shows the good work done by the club and teen staff members Kathy Ciociola and Billy Waller.
“We are very proud of that, and it certainly speaks a lot to our staff,” Reiderer said. “Youth of the Year is a one-time event, but we really look at it as a year-round program of building the character of the kids who come to the club.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]