West Ottawa's Isabel Shepard is state Youth of the Year

Holland’s Isabel Shepard is the Michigan Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year.

Shepard, a senior at West Ottawa High School, received the honor at the 2023 State Youth of the Year Competition in Lansing April 27. As a state winner, Shepard received a $2,500 scholarship and will now advance to the regional competition in Chicago this summer with the chance to receive additional sponsorships. 

“The program honors our nation's most awe-inspiring young people on their path to great futures and encourages all kids to lead, succeed and inspire,” a release from the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holland says. “Isabel is a true example of an extraordinary young woman recognized by BGCA for her leadership, service, academic excellence, and dedication to living a healthy lifestyle.” 

Shepard is far from the only extraordinary youth at the Holland chapter of the Boys and Girls Club.

Each year, the Holland Club nominates a handful of extraordinary youth. The nominees meet weekly, starting in September. They 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. 

They spend more than 200 hours together as a group, and more individually, honing those foundational skills for life — interview and writing skills that will help them enter college or obtain scholarships.

Holland's Nayeli Mora, with an anti-bullying platform, was the 2021 Michigan Youth of the Year.

Here are excerpts from essays written by each of this year’s nominees.

Isabel “Izzy” Shepard
Senior at West Ottawa High School
Plans to attend Saginaw Valley in the fall for biochemistry and to become an anesthesiologist
Promise Scholarship recipient

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.”

Juan Gomez
Senior at West Ottawa High School
Plans to attend Michigan State University to study business management with aspirations to own his own business.
Promise Scholarship recipient

Platform Essay
“On the website ‘Life works’  a site that shares information about teens, they highlight the month of May as teen self-esteem month. … The information states that 20% of teens experience some sort of depression before they become adults. …

When I was in my early teens, I struggled with low self-esteem. Since I spent most of my extra time participating in sports, I measured my success based on others' physical ability. I worked hard, not to be healthier but to be better than others. My achievements did not have value at that time, because I still felt like I was not good enough. Things began to shift in high school. I realized that who I am as a person is not defined by what I do on a playing field.  Who I am is a combination of who I am in a classroom, how I am as a person, and as a leader on the field. All of those qualities carry much more importance than my physical abilities. Working on all those different parts of my life has helped me accept who I am, be proud of who I am and believe in myself. Even when there is self-doubt, it is great to have teachers, parents and friends recognize the special person you are.”

Gavin Phe
Sophomore at West Ottawa High School
Deciding between a career in coding or welding

Club Essay
“Throughout my years attending the Club I have found a sense of belonging as I discovered ways to give back. … Over the past year and a half, I dedicated some of my time at the Club to volunteering in the Middle School Room. Through helping with homework or playing chess I invested in spending time building relationships with many middle school members. Middle School can be a rough time, I knew I could be a positive role model for many of those members. As a role model I could feel everything I did had a lot of impact on those who looked up to me. From me giving advice about a situation or even just me helping with some simple confusion amongst themselves, I was an important person to the younger members. In turn, I built a special relationship with the middle school coordinator TJ. TJ would talk to me about the things that bothered me about myself. He helped me see myself from a different point of view. He told me to take a different approach to life. He always said take it like chess, look ahead and have multiple points of view. He always spoke about my positive impact on the Club members and how he appreciated my help. My work with middle schoolers has helped me become more sociable and confident in myself.”

Analicia Sandoval

Sophomore at West Ottawa
Aspires to major in psychology

Brand Essay
“A mirror is a reflective surface, typically glass covered by a substance called amalgam. …

In 2020, during my 7th grade year, COVID-19 hit, there was nothing for me to do except sit in my room with my thoughts. Constantly I was looking for reassurance from people unfound. Whatever I was thinking I would try and apply it to myself.  I changed a lot in that time. There was no one there for me to model myself after. I could be who I wanted to be; the only thing was I did not know who I was. I began the difficult process of finding myself, by visualizing my ideal lifestyle. Through school video calls I was slowly losing my own identity, day by day I grew more unhappy with who I was. I wasn’t living my own truth and I despised it. Days and weeks passed when I actively avoided any sort of mirror, so I did not have to deal with what it was reflecting. When schools opened back up during my 8th grade year, it forced me to look at myself and really analyze what I saw before me.”

Sterling Shepard (unrelated to Isabel Shepard)
Graduated early from Holland High School and will attend Grand Rapids Community College for radiology this fall

Brand Essay
“Counseling is not advice, it's not an instant solution, it's not judgmental. It's a safe space where I can speak uninterrupted when that's all I really need. … It allows me a safe place to tell my story as they are actively listening, letting me know that they are paying attention. It provides me with clarity, and I find peace. …

What I have learned through years of counseling is that you have to be your own advocate.  I have had different counselors because I asked for change when I believed I had outgrown the counselor and their style. The counselor I have now is the best one so far, because of the pressure I have felt from getting ready for my next step in life, and how easily he makes me feel at ease. I have someone in my corner knowing what I'm capable of other than my parents or people close to me. It gives me a different peace of mind.”

Alesha VandenBerge
Junior at Holland High School
Deciding between nursing and another career

Platform Essay
“Halfway through my second-grade year, my teacher noticed I wasn't processing or understanding the material she was teaching. She noticed every time she would call on me to answer a question, I would be speechless. Then one day when parent-teacher conferences came I tagged along with my mom. I remember her talking to my mom about how I would go blank when she called on me. I immediately felt a sense of shame. From that day on my life changed.

When I was in elementary school no one knew I had an Individualized Education Plan or commonly known as an IEP. … Since being diagnosed with a learning disability I have been able to develop an IEP plan and I no longer feel lost in school. I have a better understanding of my academic needs.”
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