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Boys & Girls Club honoree takes on bullying

VERGENNES — The latest Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes Youth of the Year had several goals in mind when she decided to compete for the honor.
Some were practical — if Vergennes resident Ericka DeLisle, 18 on April 1, wins the Vermont Youth of the Year competition in Montpelier on April 9, she will earn scholarship money to help her attend the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts this fall.
DeLisle would also like to have a higher profile for her primary message — against bullying.
“College is expensive, and I don’t want to be in debt the rest of my life,” said the Vergennes Union High School senior. “But it’s also a really good opportunity to get myself out there, to make myself known as a member of the community, and to show what I can do to make our community better.”
Her crusade against bullying is both personal and powerful: Her current poise and confidence was hard-won.
“Bullying is just awful,” DeLisle said. “It does such bad things to self-esteem. It got to the point where I was like, ‘Should I even be alive?’”
That message was not the only reason she was picked for the honor over 2014 winner Kira Johnson in what club Executive Director Mike Reiderer called “a challenging decision” for the judges.
“What really stood out for them was the way she presented herself. She’s very outspoken, and answered all their questions right off the top of her head,” Reiderer said. “She was very complimentary of the club, and they just felt like she was really going to present herself well at the state level of the competition, and hopefully further on down the line.”
EARLY EFFECTS
DeLisle credits several of the club programs she joined as an elementary school member for boosting her self-esteem and life skills.
“Homework Club taught me not to procrastinate, even though I will admit I still do it on the regular. I have about six scholarship essays I still have to write, but I’m like, I’m going to get on Netflix tonight and watch more ‘Bob’s Burgers,’” DeLisle said. “Dinner Club taught me manners, not just table manners, but etiquette in general, how to treat other people the way you want to be treated. And youth cheerleading taught me that in order to accomplish big things you have to work as a team, and that fitness is really important as well.”
Billy Waller, teen program director for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, believes DeLisle took that early cheerleading experience to heart in another way.
“One of the first programs she was part of was the cheerleading program. When you get into that at a young age, you develop some self-confidence,” Waller said. “First of all, you’re on a stage. You have to present yourself, you have to be loud, all those types of things. I think that has helped her become who she is today.”
DeLisle recalls taking to cheerleading naturally as an extension of her existing interests, including dance, song and theater. She has stuck with it — she captained the VUHS varsity team a year ago and remained a mainstay of the highly regarded squad this past season, after which she won the team’s coaches’ award.
“I was always a very loud and media-centered kind of child. I always liked dancing and singing and acting,” DeLisle said. “Cheerleading was just a more athletic way of doing that. There was a lot of dance and more sass in that. And in cheerleading you always have to go out with a smile, and that’s a lesson I’ve carried on with in my life. That even when you’re down you have to leave it at the door and bring in a smile and people will want to talk to you.”
DEALING WITH BULLYING
And more recently, largely centered on her sophomore year at VUHS, there were down times, she explained, mostly due to bullying. Her tormentors focused on the fact that DeLisle, while healthy and normal, is not model-thin.
“I’ve always been constantly bullied about my weight, mostly. Because I’m a really tall girl, but I’ve got really big hips and I’m not in a target weight,” she said. “It’s really hard to be a girl nowadays.”
DeLisle described the results of that bullying:
“I constantly felt sad. I didn’t want to get out of bed and go to school, because I knew it was just going to happen again. I couldn’t really focus on any classwork. With the anxiety, I just felt constantly nervous and would watch my back. I didn’t feel safe anywhere. Even in safe spaces I didn’t feel safe. Mostly because of cyber-bullying, too. Because you can be attacked online, too. The Internet is everywhere. So there was no safe space at that point.”
She sought counseling from a school-based clinician, and said that helped her arrive at a conclusion and an approach that let her regain happiness. DeLisle also credits her friends, and just maybe a hidden reserve of confidence that came from success at her early interests — including dancing and youth cheerleading.
Her description of how she bounced back echoed her description of what she learned in that Boys & Girls Club program.
“I’ve heard it said you choose to be happy. So when I woke up in the morning, I would smile, and I would tell myself that it’s going to be a better day. You’re going to make it a better day,” she said. “It’s like the fight-or-flight response. You can respond to it or you can just leave the situation. I started working out more so they wouldn’t have anything to talk about. I tried making more friends or talking to friends that I had kind of dropped off.”
Her experience has given her a message she now wants to share, and said that her club honor will help her do so: With help and time targets of bullying can overcome its effects.
“Talk to somebody you trust, whether it’s a grandma, or it’s a dad. I’m really close to my dad, so I talk to him a lot. Your best friend. You’re not alone, and you will never be alone. There’s God knows how many people on this planet. There’s going to be somebody there for you, who loves you,” she said. “And it does get better, believe it or not.”
SPREADING THE WORD
DeLisle also wants to let others know what else Boys & Girls Clubs can do for teens and younger children.
She listened to club messages about healthy eating and fitness.
“Healthy habits are a good thing to have for the rest of your lifetime, and even if you’re not the standard, like, fit, but you’re still healthy, that’s what matters,” DeLisle said. “I know I’m not the picture of finesse. I do not have a six-pack. I barely have bicep muscles. But I try to get on the elliptical at least 10 minutes a day.”
The club also encourages volunteerism and participation: She donates blood and is a registered Red Cross volunteer, has helped out at school and United Way Day of Caring events, regularly tap dances, and sings for three VUHS choruses.
DeLisle also believes the club has offered her and others a smart alternative and a safe place over the years.
“It’s kept me from getting with the wrong crowd, the wrong people, per se,” DeLisle said. “And the club is a safe place. We don’t tolerate bullying.”
And the club has helped her think big: This fall at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass., she plans to major in English and Communications with a focus in broadcast media.
“I know broadcast news analysts don’t make a lot of money, but I’m following my dream,” she said. “One day you’re going to see me on WCAX or Channel 5. Who knows, maybe CBS Boston.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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