Kelcey Perez loves to dance. So much so that she once learned and mastered a dance routine with a broken arm.
But it’s not Perez’s smooth moves that made her the New Haven Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year, but her “it” factor.
In the little over two years that Kelcy, 14, has been going to the Boys & Girls Club on Columbus Avenue after school, she’s grown from a shy kid to a confident teen, who had enough moxie to pursue the highest honor a club member can achieve—being named youth of the year.
“There are teens that have that natural it factor, and teens that really have to work at it,” said Carlos Collazo, the club’s director of program services and operations. “But Kelcey has that natural ability—that it-factor.”
The Youth of the Year program is the Boys & Girls Club of America’s premier recognition program. It recognizes “outstanding contributions to a member’s family, school, community and Boys & Girls Club, as well as how they have overcome personal challenges and obstacles.” Youth of the Year encourages club members to “reach their full potential by achieving academic success, leading healthy lifestyles and contributing to their communities,” according to information provided by the club.
On May 7, Kelcey will compete with members from across the state for the Connecticut Youth of the Year title and a $5,000 scholarship and advance to regional competitions. Regional winners receive an additional $10,000 college scholarship, renewable for four years up to $40,000. Six youth, including five regional winners and a military winner, advance to the National Youth of the Year competition for a chance at an additional scholarship of $25,000, renewable up to $100,000 for four years. The National Youth of the Year represents all Boys & Girls Club youth.
Kelcey said she didn’t come to the club the way she is now. In fact, she was offended when her mother told her that she would be heading there most days after school. “At first I was like, ‘I don’t need a babysitter,’” she recalled with a giggle. But her mom, Maria Torres-Hill, explained that it was best for her to have somewhere to hang out with other kids her age after school. Kelcey decided to give it a chance.
She said she was shy at first because she didn’t know anyone. Three girls befriended her almost immediately; she felt more comfortable being herself. “They really made me more at ease,” she said. “Everybody was really open to me.”
They were especially open when they found out she is a dancer. Her passion for dance has not only led her to dance with a broken arm. She also gave up her winter break to teach 7- and 8-year-old members a dance routine that she choreographed for a Black History month talent show. Collazo said Kelcey has the passion and the drive, the club is there to provide her, and every child who comes through its doors, the opportunity to to develop their skills and confidence. The club also gives them a chance to show off what they’ve learned through events such as talent shows. Kelcey said the more she danced at the club the more confident she became, and part of her new found confidence is being comfortable with leading and teaching.
“I’ve always danced,” she said. “I asked my mom how long. She said, ‘From the crib.’”
As much as Kelcey loves dance, her other passion is science. In fact the love of the subject is what she calls “like dance, but for my nerdy self.” The New Haven Academy freshman wants to be a neonatologist when she grows up. She has a younger cousin who was born with “his stomach in his chest and needed a feeding tube, and that really affected me.” Learning how doctors were able to help her cousin—who is “now always smiling and laughing a lot” and “about to turn 2”—turned her on to the field.
Kelcey said she is really grateful to be named Youth of the Year for the New Haven club.
“I really love the experiences I’ve had here,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the person that I am and I love who I am right now. If I hadn’t had these experiences shape me, I wouldn’t be confident enough to talk to you, or be Youth of the Year.”
Watch this video to see Kelcey in action.