By LAINE GRIFFIN
Daily News-Record 3/7/19
HARRISONBURG — Merciel Bujitu is getting ready to be the star of the show after being picked for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County 2019 Youth of the Year award.
Merciel, a 15-year-old sophomore at Harrisonburg High School, moved to the Valley from the Democratic Republic of Congo in December 2017 not knowing a word of English, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a leader at the local club soon after his arrival.
“He has such a radiant personality and is so helpful and kind to everyone,” said Lori Kizner, executive director of the organization. “He is the perfect fit for this.”
On April 4, Bujitu will head to Richmond to compete for the state award.
But before he can go, shopping for interview clothes was a must.
On Wednesday, the award recipient joined Kizner, Greg Lunsford, director of development for the club, and Alexis Korahaes, a James Madison University senior social work major, to buy an outfit for him to wear in Richmond.
While shopping for clothes at Kohl’s in Harrisonburg, Merciel said he has had a lot of fun preparing for Richmond.
“I’m not nervous; I’m excited,” he said. “And shopping is fun.”
While in Richmond, he will also participate in team-building activities with the other award applicants.
Judges at the state level will pick candidates to move forward to the regional and then the national contest to determine the Boys and Girls Club National Youth of the Year.
Kizner said in her six years participating in the process, the local applicant from the area has never advanced to the regional level, but that’s not what it’s about to her.
“We try to select someone every year because it’s a good leadership opportunity for them,” she said. “It’s also fun for them to get to compete with other Boys and Girls Club applicants around the state.”
The application, which was submitted last week, requires recommendations that speak to his health and physical activity habits, academics, character and how the Teen Center’s staff views him.
He also must submit three essays about his experience with the club and his vision for America’s youth.
Kizner wrote Merciel a recommendation letter on his character and leadership. His physical education teacher, Tori Fantasia, wrote his physical fitness recommendation letter, and Brittni Shiflet, his ESL teacher, wrote his academics recommendation letter.
But Korahaes has been working with Merciel since the start.
“I can see why they chose him,” she said. “He has a hard work ethic, is always helping around the club by asking leaders if they need help and always has a smile on his face.”
Korahaes has been meeting with Merciel four to five times a week at school to help him with his essay.
“When he first came here, he didn’t even know the word hello. It’s crazy to see how well he has learned English,” she said, adding that he also speaks French and Lingala.
Kizner said having Korahaes work with Merciel to get words onto paper has been instrumental in him getting to the point where he is ready to compete in Richmond.
“He had to ask the teachers to write him a recommendation letter and he didn’t understand the word ‘ essay’ or ‘ interview,’ so we really had to start from ground zero,” Kizner said.
Now, Kizner said she is confident Merciel is ready to compete.
“We are going to go see him and support him while he does this,” Kizner said in reference to her and Korahaes. “I think it’s going to be a great experience all around.”