The responsibility and the reality is just starting to weigh in at this point, but Laura Jenny was pretty shocked when it was first announced that she was Massachusetts Teen Youth of the Yearfrom among the many other youths from about 40 Boys & Girls Clubs statewide.
As a longtime member of the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, Jenny was feeling a deep sense of honor that day in acting as her club’s representative at the statewide competition held at Westfield State University on June 6.
In her surprise at the moment it was announced, she wished that all the staff and children she has come to share her time with during her more than nine years at her local club could have been on stage with her that day, because she believed they all deserved the honor along with her.
Jenny said her first time experience attending the state competition included making lifetime friends of the many other youths she met during the two day event and kept her wondering, “Why me, and not them?” She said they were all “great kids” and “solid characters.”
The honor was not only a first for Jenny, who is a junior at Leominster High School, said Teen Center Director Jon Blodgett, but also a first for the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster. He said no one from the club had up to this point even made it to finals, so this has been something that has sparked a great hope and enthusiasm among the other student members who regularly attend.
Jenny was awarded a $20,000 college scholarship from the Myra Kraft “Giving Back Fund,” a $5,000 scholarship from the Boys &Girls Club of America partners Disney, Toyota, the University of Phoenix and the Taco Bell Foundation, a $1,000 scholarship from the Ninety-Nine Restaurants, and a new Dell laptop computer from Comcast. She will also go on to represent her club and the state ofMassachusetts at the four-day Boys & Girls Club Northeast Regional Youth of the Year competition in New York City on Aug. 1.
She will give a small speech at the Massachusetts State House during the Massachusetts Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs ceremony to include Gov. Charlie Baker, and will have the honor of throwing the first pitch at an upcoming Red Sox game at Fenway Park. In July, she will attend a leadership conference hosted by the Boys & Girls Club of America in Atlanta, Georgia.
Blodgett cited Jenny’s many special contributions and her willingness to participate in all aspects of the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, specifically noting that she took a course in tax preparation given by the Montachusett Opportunity Council(MOC) and afterward volunteering her help in preparing taxes for others.
She also stood out, he remarked, when she created and developed a program called “Protecting Law Enforcement and Youth” (PLAY), which focuses on educating her peers about establishing healthy interactions between teens and local police. With her help, this program has also since been implemented at five other Massachusetts Boys & Girls Clubs.
The state competition required that Jenny give a speech and answer questions before a panel of two judges, which she said was a bit daunting. She also had to submit three essays prior to the event, one focusing on her club experiences, another on how she characterizes herself, and the third identifying a “real world” problem and her solution to it.
Jenny’s real world focus was on the sexual and physical abuses that have been experienced by many she is aware of, and that, despite the urging and encouragement that social workers or teachers might give, it is not easy for young people to trust someone else or talk about something this serious. Many, she said, also fear “exposing” themselves as a snitch or worse, so she suggests the creation of an “app” that would allow children and youth to anonymously report such abuse, whether their own or another’s.
Jenny said a big responsibility will be to spread the word about “the great things that this club does for everybody, the whole community and the kids. My club has done so much for me over the years. This club is my life. I’m here all the time.”
Going before state judges was difficult, Jenny said, but she is even more nervous when she considers her new role as representative of her own club and those across Massachusetts. What runs through her mind now as she heads towards the regional competition is “Oh my goodness, now I have to represent all these kids and all their stories, all the staff at the club — it’s a big task. All the other club representatives — they’re kind, compassionate, kids. They’re talented. Not only them, but all the kids at their clubs. How am I going to represent all these great people? It’s almost impossible to fill their shoes.”
According to a statement from the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, Jenny is a “true example of an extraordinary young woman recognized by the BGCA for her leadership, service, academic excellence and dedication to live a healthy lifestyle.”
Her leadership “naturally developed over time,” commented Blodgett, who added that whether you consider her willingness to help others through her volunteering or her overall character she is “everything you hope for in a leader.”
“It’s been an honor and a privilege to watch her develop as a young adult,” he said.
Jenny, who first started attending club activities when she was 8 years old, said she was “super shy” in the beginning, but the club helped her to leave her “comfort zone” and explore new things. She said it played a large role in her reaching a “more outgoing” personality and becoming more active in the community.
She saw the center renewed from the dilapidated original structure that once housed the Julie Country Day School on Lindell Avenue, and grow and expand through renovations. She said staff members have been an inspiration to her, and because of them, she has found a desire to give back to the community and help others.
Jenny said programs over the years have helped her with her homework, filled her curiosity for gardening, astronomy, and beekeeping, provided needed direction in leadership, and learning about future careers and how to obtain them. The club even became the place to practice her violin and share music performances with others.
She would also love to implement a more intensive volleyball program at the club, a sport she loves and plays at Leominster High School.
This summer, Jenny will serve as an intern in the office of Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale, paid for by the Boys & Girls Club. College is in her future, but whether she goes to higher education nearer her native Leominster or farther away, she says she intends to return to her roots and more specifically to play a continuing role at the club.
Her own general rule is, she remarked, “just be the person that I can sleep with at night — always portray myself as being transparent. Be true to myself and be true to others; be understanding of other people and where they come from.”