Quiana McElroy, Youth of the Year.
Quiana McElroy doesn't tell a story, she dances it.
At 14 years old, it isn't Quiana's six years of ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop and lyrical dance experience that made her the 2008 Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula Youth of the Year. It's the fact that she's able to take her experience and teach kids younger than she is to come up with their own moves.
"Dance is one way to express themselves," Quiana said. "(They can) dance it out instead of hit something."
Quiana, an eighth-grader at Soldotna Middle School, and her younger brother, Malyq McElroy, joined the Boys and Girls Club more than five years ago as a way to interact with kids their age outside school. Their mother, Betty Jean Walton-McElroy, was bedridden with linear morphea and fibromyalgia, and even though she did everything she could for her children, after a while it was all she could do to help them with their homework.
Quiana was in the fifth grade when her mother died.
The Boys and Girls Club kept Quiana and her brother from changing schools when they moved into Dianne Ireland's home just outside Sterling. Ireland, their grandmother, said Quiana attended the Boys and Girls Club until she was in seventh grade and was asked to be a junior volunteer shortly thereafter.
A couple days a week after school and two months during the summer, Quiana teaches dance at the Boys and Girls Club, choreographs talent shows and helps with snack and administrative work. Quiana said she's good at paying attention to what people feel. Ireland said the club has given her good organizational skills and an opportunity to grow.
"She found her niche as a dancer and a teacher," Ireland said. "(The Boys and Girls Club) is an amazing program. I don't know how we would have survived without it."
Quiana heads to Juneau on Wednesday to compete against eight other Boys and Girls Club members for the Alaska Youth of the Year Award. Kim Lee, Soldotna clubhouse director, said Quiana had to write five essays on her future plans and what the club means to her. Each candidate for the award must get good grades in school and have plans to attend college, she said.
"When we get to Juneau, each of the candidates will sit down with five judges," Lee said. "They will have five minutes to talk with each judge individually."
The winner of the Alaska Youth of the Year award will win a $1,000 scholarship from Reader's Digest and have the opportunity to compete for the title of Pacific Region Youth of the Year Award, which includes a $10,000 scholarship. Regional winners will advance to Washington, D.C., in September to compete for the National Youth of the Year Award, a visit to the Oval Office and a $15,000 scholarship.
"The Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula has had several state winners, but we haven't gone on to national," Lee said. "There's only five regions and there's five kids chosen from thousands of clubs."
Quiana, who wants to be many things when she grows up, including a professional dancer, said she thinks she was chosen as the Youth of the Year because she's responsible.
"They know I'll get a job done," she said. "I won't give up, and I'll always smile."
When Quiana teaches her students a new dance routine, she said, she starts with a song, one that isn't too fast or too slow. Then she lets the kids try their own moves out.
"I see what stuff they like to do," she said.
Going before a judge in Juneau is nothing new to Quiana. After six years of dancing at Vergine's Dance Studio in Soldotna and competing against other dancers, she's used to judges.
When she gets back from Juneau, she will spend her spring break next week doing two week's worth of homework to get ready for Dance Excellence in Southern California on March 21.
Dance Excellence is an international dance festival that offers seven days of training with a chance to perform at Disneyland. Vergine Hedberg, owner of Vergine's Dance Studio, said her students have been participating at the festival for three years.
"The experience is so wonderful," she said. "There's no way I can bring that experience here in my studio."
Hedberg focuses on teaching her students a skill they can apply later on in their lives rather than simply teaching dance, she said. Quiana, whose favorite form of dance is ballet despite it being her toughest, isn't one to shrink from a challenge, Hedberg said, which includes using what she's learned to teach kids at the Boys and Girls Club.
"It takes a little bit more maturity than being a dancer because of injuries and the attitudes of the children," Hedberg said. "It seems to me she's not getting enough, whether she's dancing or teaching. She loves the challenge."
Only one person can win the Boys and Girls Club's Alaska Youth of the Year award, and while Quiana is looking forward to her Juneau trip and a chance to meet the governor and state legislators, her grandmother said winning the award isn't important.
"It's not about winning," Ireland said. "It's about getting the Boys and Girls Club name out there so it can help other people."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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