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Formerly shy, 'Youth of Year' shines

Michelle Hobbs is a busy girl. She plays softball in the spring, volleyball in the fall and soccer in the summer. She's also on the mock trial team, works at the Lincoln Park Boys & Girls Club, and is the president of the Keystone Club, a you...

Michelle Hobbs is a busy girl.

She plays softball in the spring, volleyball in the fall and soccer in the summer. She's also on the mock trial team, works at the Lincoln Park Boys & Girls Club, and is the president of the Keystone Club, a youth volunteer group involved in programs such as mentoring and raising awareness of homelessness.

"She's into everything," said her mother, Debbie Hobbs. "I found out school was out today and I said, 'Nobody wake that girl up.' She slept until 2. She needed sleep that much."

After Tuesday night, Michelle can add one more item to her to-do list. She's been selected for the 37th annual Youth of the Year Award, handed out by the Boys & Girls Club of Duluth, and for that she'll be attending the upcoming state award ceremony to possibly move on to the regional and then national ceremonies.

The judges Tuesday night considered their decisions for nearly an hour after hearing two of this year's nominees for the award -- Michelle Hobbs and Cortez Ham -- speak. The other nominee, Paul LaGrande, whose speech was read by a friend, was unable to attend.

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"It was very close," said Leslie Pete, one of the judges.

Nominees for the award, all members of the Boys & Girls Club older than 14, are selected based on participation in club activities, leadership ability, respect for club staff and what kind of stories they have to tell, said Alec Staffon, the branch director of the Lester Park Boys & Girls Club, where the ceremony was held.

"A lot of these kids have had a raw deal in life, and this recognition is an important thing," Staffon said.

Hobbs, 16, said that her nine years at the club completely changed her.

"I was very shy, but that all started to change," Hobbs said during her speech. "I became friends with people I wouldn't have met otherwise."

Karla Woodfill, a staff member at the Boys & Girls Club who was matched with Hobbs five years ago through Mentor Duluth, said she was taken with Hobbs' active personality from the start.

"She's very outgoing, empathetic, sincere. She's willing to try everything," Woodfill said.

Ham, like Hobbs, said that the club had made him a better person.

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"I used to fight a lot," Ham said in his speech. "I learned to control my temper here."

Being able to play basketball and having a place to go away from home were what drew Ham to the club. He said it gave him a way to relieve stress, including stress relating to school work.

"Without their help I probably would have failed my classes, especially math," he said.

Paul LaGrande wrote in his speech, read by his mentor, Matt Bovey, that the club gave him a way to get off the streets and still hang out with his friends. He wrote that his friendship with Bovey also was a reason for him to keep coming back.

"He's been like the dad I never had," LaGrande wrote.

The Boys & Girls Club is a national not-for-profit organization that aims to provide a safe place for children and young adults to go outside of school. It has two locations in Duluth: the Lester Park branch and the Lincoln Park Elementary School branch.

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