PAWTUCKET — A split second after Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket Board of Trustees member John Hoffman had announced the victor, club staff member Shirley Rodriguez immediately began weeping tears of elation.
“I wanted to jump for joy, but I couldn't; it wouldn't have been very professional, not in my job,” Rodriguez explained after her friend, St. Raphael Academy freshman Coral Santos, had been selected the club's 2011 “Youth of the Year” on Thursday night.
“Wow! She so deserves it,” she added. “She's a hard-working, compassionate club member who's always there when you need her. The compassion she has with the children is incredible. She's shown them that they also can accomplish great things if they put their minds to it.”
A committee of seven judges had decided that Santos best represented outstanding contributions not only to the club but also her family, school and community; and overcoming personal challenges and obstacles.
Those judges included Hoffman; Dwight Douglas of the Pawtucket Rotary Club; John Thompson, a Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket alumnus; Rosie Fernandez of Cox Communications; Rose McHale and Kristin Lyons of the club's Board of Directors; and Cory Spear of 99 Restaurants.
They spent dozens of hours shuffling through the accolades racked up by five most worthy candidates, among them Santos; Tolman High junior and 12-year club member Moussa Camara; Shea High senior Marissa Moniz; St. Raphael Academy sophomore and 12-year club member Mellany Rodas; and Cassondra Teixeira, a Shea High junior and three-year club member.
All received plaques for being chosen a candidate, and to commemorate their splendid work.
Still, nobody was more surprised with the announcement, which took place after a special banquet inside the Alfred Elson Jr. branch on School Street, than Santos.
“I'm in shock, honestly,” Santos grinned after she received a stunning plaque, a $2,000 Thompson Family Scholarship, a $1,000 check for her college education from Rose McHale of the McHale Family Foundation; and a $99 gift card and $100 Visa card from 99 Restaurants of North Attleboro and Foxboro.
“I was just doing this for the experience,” she added. “It really didn't matter to me if I had won. I just did this to do it, to get the feel of it, so when I did it again, I'd know how. This is a dream come true … I really can't believe it. When they announced my name, I just started crying. My mom was crying, and my dad, I think, was in shock. This is so amazing!”
What truly is astonishing about Santos is this: Her parents, Brian and Pamela of Pawtucket's Pinecrest section, weren't sure if Coral would live past two weeks.
“She was two months premature; I had developed toxemia, which is when an expectant mother gets high blood pressure, and I had five seizures en route to the hospital,” Pamela stated. “The doctors informed my family that neither one of us may make it.
“The high blood pressure forced me into premature labor,” she continued. “She was about two weeks old when she developed sleep apnea. She was still in the hospital, and doctors had to revive her. They also explained she could have developmental challenges, that she may be behind academically and physically.
“As an infant, she had a monitor with wires hooked up to her until she was 17 months old, so she was unable to crawl around. She was on medications to help develop her lungs. She didn't start eating solid food until about that same time.”
Slow but sure, Coral improved, and nowadays, it seems, nothing can hold her back.
A club member for eight years, she currently serves as a co-captain of the Sharks' swim team, and competes in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles, 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard backstroke. She, in fact, has produced a personal best time of 28.5 seconds at the 50 distance.
She also has volunteered as an assistant swimming lessons instructor, and as a Junior Staff member. Last summer, she worked very closely with the club's six- and -seven-year-olds, also known as “Tribe” members, who are under the directorship of Rodriguez. As a “Tribe mentor,” Coral's duties included doing arts and crafts, or playing soccer, softball and basketball with the children.
At SRA, she has represented the girls' soccer and track squads, and also registered for the La Sallian Youth, a group of teens who volunteer to work at soup kitchens or to read to children after school. She even took part in a “Sleepout” at Cathedral Square in Providence, that to bring more attention to the plight of the homeless.
It gets better: Coral actually completed a 13.1 half-marathon (13.1 miles) in Falmouth on Feb. 27 – in a snowstorm.
“It took me two hours, and I did it because I made a promise to a friend that I'd do it,” she noted. “I did it because I don't break promises.”
When asked for further details, she revealed she became friends with a private personal trainer who had taught her how to run properly.
“I told her someday I'd run one, so I chose that one,” she said. “Will I try a marathon? Maybe, but I'm not going to rush that one.
Coral was joined at the fete by her maternal grandparents, John and Paula Vessella of Pawtucket, and kid sister Chloe, 4. She admitted later she had no idea why she was chosen.
“Maybe it's because my passion is helping others,” Coral stated. “I enjoy knowing that I can help others, that I can make a difference in people's lives. I love having that satisfaction that I am helping them.
“I don't expect anything in return; I don't want anything in return,” she added. “I'm just doing what I want, and that's helping in any way I can.”
Coral, by the way, someday aspires to be a pediatrician or an ALS researcher. She hopes to attend either Johns Hopkins or Brown universities.
Without question, Santos' reception of the Thompson Family Scholarship brought with it a rather touching story. John Thompson indicated during his speech that he was there “not only as an alum and out of benevolence, but also a bit of guilt.”
He spoke of receiving a $300 Radcliffe Scholarship from this club years ago as a student at Boston College, and that the letter accompanying the check asked he pay it back upon graduating.
Thompson then indicated he and his wife were about to move last summer, and were packing items into boxes when he happened upon that letter. He told his spouse, “I feel horribly. I don't think I paid them back.”
He then called the club and talked to Development Officer Amy Gravell.
“He explained what happened, and he wanted to do something special,” she mentioned. “At first, I was so excited, because it's always great to hear from alums. We talked about different possibilities, and – as soon as I suggested a 'Youth of the Year' scholarship – he said, 'That's it! That's what I want to do.'
“He now will give on behalf of the Thompson Family a $2,000 scholarship annually to the Youth of the Year,” she added proudly. “That was one of the best days. To get that phone call, it was amazing. That's what we dream of from our former members, to remember what the club meant to them and wanting to give something back.”
As for Coral being selected as “Youth of the Year,” Boys & Girls Club CEO Jim Hoyt called it a superb decision.
“We've seen her grow over the years as a member, and she has taken advantage of the opportunity the club has put in front of her,” he stated. “She's done a great job in all she's achieved, and we're very proud to have her represent the club as 'Youth of the Year.'
“Each one of these candidates in their own right deserves the honor, and I'd be equally proud to have any one of them winning. They're all great kids, and they're all tremendous examples of the awesome work the staff does on a day-to-day basis. This truly is my favorite event of the year because it's all about family.”
On May 24, Coral will represent the Pawtucket club at the Rhode Island State “Youth of the Year” competition. That victor, who would collect a $1,000 scholarship from Tupperware Corp., will then attend the Boys & Girls Club of America's Northeast Regional event, which offers a $10,000 scholarship.
The five regional winners nationwide will advance to Washington D.C. this September to compete for the National “Youth of the Year” crown, and he or she would glean not only a $15,000 college scholarship but also would meet President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. There, he would install him or her as champion.
When asked if she's ready for the state competition, Coral just grinned, “I'm just going to do the best I can. If I can make it further, that would be unbelievable. If not, I'll just keep trying.”