Local Youth of the Year competing for national title

West Ottawa senior Isabel Shepard will compete this week in New York City for the title of Boys and Girls Club National Youth of the Year. She received the local honor earlier this year and was then named Michigan Youth of the Year and Midwest Youth of the Year. 

The Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year program is a leadership development program in which local nominees work together to develop their platforms and create their personal brands. Each nominee also writes a series of three essays — the Club essay, personal brand essay, and platform essay — and works on their public speaking skills.

Six teens — five regional winners and one military youth winner — advance to the National Youth of the Year Celebration.

The National Youth of the Year is an ambassador for Boys and Girls Club youth and exemplifies the Club’s mission, showing the difference the Boys and Girls Club has made in transforming their lives and the lives of 3.6 million kids around the country.

In her own words, the experience has been an incredible journey:

If someone would have told me a year ago, at the start of our local Youth of the Year celebration, that I would be holding the title of Midwest Youth of the Year, I would not have believed them. I don't feel that I am the only one holding this title, but I take the award on behalf of all children and teens who have had to go through the difficulty of having an incarcerated parent.
Isabel Shepard celebrates her title as Midwest Youth of the Year. This week she will compete for the Boys and Girls Club national honor.
At the beginning of October 2022, I was nominated to partake in the Youth of the Year program at my local club, The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holland. At first I did not know all that it would entail. However once I found out what the program represented, I knew that I had to share my story — not just for me but for all youth who feel unheard.

There was a lot of time and effort put into this program, by myself and staff members from my Club. Senior Area Director Mary Carrizales, Youth of the Year support staff Kyle Raak and EPIC Director Justin Caserta have played a huge role in helping me prepare for the state and Midwest celebration and now the upcoming national celebration. 

It was not an easy road. In the beginning there were three essays I had to write. The first being our brand, I chose a nebula. The second one was about our platform, mine being a single-parent household. The last essay explained the impact of my club on my life. I also had to create a cover letter and put together a resume.  Along with letters of recommendation, my documents are known as “my packet.” This packet then went to the judges at each celebration as I progressed through the different levels. My entire packet was about 50 percent of my scoring, the other 25 came from my 3-minute speech. The last 25 percent came from my interview with the judges. While it was fun completing all of these things and each celebration, I would have to say my favorite part of each was being able to hear others stories and build new friendships with the other Youths of the Year. Whether it was the local, state, or regional celebration, everyone felt so close to one another and each time it was difficult to say goodbye. 

Isabel Shepard (center) poses with her family after winning the Boys and Girls Club Michigan Youth of the Year award earlier this year. This week, Shepard will compete for the national title in New York City.

Through all of the celebrations and the preparation that I went through, I don’t think there are any words to describe how fortunate I felt to be selected. Surreal. That’s the only word that can only start to describe the feeling. I used to be ashamed of my story of a kid whose dad was incarcerated. It led me to believe that it wasn’t important. Participating in this program has shown me that my story needs to be heard, because it allows for others who felt the same way I did to know that they aren’t alone and that it's empowering to share their story.

Overall I am more than grateful for this program. It has allowed me to grow in more ways than I expected and it has allowed me to find my own voice and speak up for those who may be afraid to. Thanks to my Club and its Youth of the Year Program I can confidently say that I will be going into college and life ready to face any adversity that may come my way. 

An except from Isabel Shepard's Platform Essay

“The picture of an ideal household would be those supportive parents happily married living with their children. …

I had the opportunity to live in that picturesque household for the first four years of my life. However, things changed when my father was incarcerated and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole due to his involvement in a murder. From then on, I became the daughter of a single mother and watched as she took on struggles no mother should have to face. One of the biggest problems a single parent household faces is financial stability. After her divorce from my father, my mother had to pick up a second job due to financial struggles. I was 8 years old when she took a second job, and I was left with more household responsibilities. Suddenly I was tasked with getting my younger siblings ready for school, on and off the bus each day, cleaning the house and preparing meals. As I got older the pile of responsibilities began to expand. Over the past 9 years I have continued to help my younger siblings by transporting them to various events, homework help and bedtime. 

My father had been my rock, the person I looked up to and when the judge sentenced him to life with no possibility of parole our relationship had vanished. I grew up without a father figure wishing one day my father would return. When I became old enough to understand that wasn’t going to happen, I began to feel as if I was not enough. Abruptly, it felt as if I was the one that the judge had sentenced. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I was not responsible for my father’s actions. I have learned to let go of the strain his actions had put on me, and this has allowed me to flourish and grow as a person. The weight of my past, which was out of my control, no longer holds me down. I have realized I am strong, resilient, and ready to take on any challenge I face. Although statistics would suggest that success is out of reach, growing up in a single parent household has molded me into who I am today.”
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