Tragedy translates to inspiring message

 
 
 

 

Helené Donahue, 14, with her mother, Mary Lynne Donahue, at their Pawcatuck home. Dana Jensen – The day

 

North Stonington, CT (Sasha Goldstein, TheDay.com) – When tragedy strikes, it doesn’t care how old you are.

Two teens, both members of the North Stonington Butter and Beef 4-H Club, learned that the hard way.

Both Kalyn Bomster and Helené Donahue lost close loved ones to early deaths.

Both have used writing to deal with very grown-up issues.

And both took first place at the statewide 4-H public speaking contest in their respective age groups, winning by talking about those very same personal topics in front of total strangers.

“No one [from our club] has won at either level in state,” said Dan Holdridge, a club co-leader who helped and coached the girls. “We’ve never had a senior and a junior, and to have them both win? The odds of that happening are so remote.

“It’s the best of the best of kids around the state,” he said. “It just makes this accomplishment that much more special. They really busted their humps and did a phenomenal job.”

Each girl advanced from the local competition in North Stonington to the county level in Norwich before being crowned the winners at the state contest in West Hartford on March 12.

When you hear their speeches, it’s clear they come from the heart, Holdridge said. They speak of pain but also of hope, a positive message they want to share with others dealing with their own tragedies.

Kalyn’s story

Only a sixth-grade student, Kalyn has seen more bullying than she cares to think about. The problem had gotten so out of hand that in January, she decided to give her speech on the topic.

Later that month, on Jan. 25, 14-year-old family friend Joseph Mendes committed suicide after he was bullied by his peers, Kalyn said.

“To have my friend experience that pain, it made me really upset,” she said. “I picked it because every day bullying happens at school. You see it everywhere you go, even at the mall.”

Kalyn’s speech clocked in at 4 minutes, 52 seconds, just under the maximum time limit allowed in the 7- to 12-year-old age group in which she competed. During that time, the 11-year-old told the judges and assembled crowd about the negative consequences that bullying causes, sometimes ending in death, as with her friend.

“She really put a lot of effort into it, and nailed a great speech,” Holdridge said.

Four years into her public-speaking experience, Kalyn said her speeches have gone from silly to somber.

“I was excited to win, but that wasn’t my achievement,” Kalyn said. “I wanted to get my point across before I thought about winning because bullying needs to be taken seriously.”

And Kalyn isn’t all talk. She’s taken the initiative at school as well, giving pointers to kindergartners on different issues and ways to avoid bullies.

“We use puppets to show them things, and teach them to control their anger,” Kalyn said. “If they get mad, we tell them to take belly breaths, deep breaths.”

Kalyn’s dedication to stopping bullying is reflected in her speech and she said winning the competition proved she had gotten her point across. She hopes she’s making a difference and that she can honor her friend’s memory by helping those who are victims of bullying.

“I worked very hard on this project, and it’s a big achievement to me that I got this far,” she said. “I want to keep doing public speaking until I can’t anymore.”

Helené’s story

Helené Donahue’s father, Steve, died in 2007 after a yearlong battle with cancer. Steve Donahue was a third-generation fire chief in Pawcatuck, a well-known man around town. His death left his four children, now 11, 14, 20 and 22, without a father.

“It was a big change, losing your lifelong partner who you think will be there forever,” Mary Lynne, Helené’s mother, said. “It changed my whole world.”

Helené, then just 11, was facing a harsh reality as well. Her father was an inspiration and wouldn’t be around as she grew up.

Her six-minute speech, titled “Identifying our True Hero,” explores the notion of a hero and what the word really means. Even at such a young age, Holdridge said Helené already has it figured out.

“My hero is greater than Batman, more super than Superman, and she probably could leap tall buildings in a single bound if she was doing it to help another person,” Helené read from her speech at each level of the competition, working on her pacing and demeanor as she spoke to the assembled crowd. “My hero is my mom, Mary Lynne Donahue.”

Mary Lynne hadn’t heard the whole speech and was shocked to hear she was Helené’s hero.

“It was a really emotional thing,” she said. “It was thrilling, I couldn’t believe it, and the whole speech itself was great.”

It’s been tough for Mary Lynne, now a single mother, and Helené expressed that during her talk.

“I just thought of how I don’t recognize her for all the things she does for me,” Helené said. “We went through a lot with dad being sick, but she used that to become a stronger person. She has shown me how to be the person I want to be.”

The raw emotion of the speech was evident as Helené recited it. After she acknowledged her mother as her hero, she had Mary Lynne stand up and introduce herself.

At the end of Helené’s speech, the crowd stood and clapped, the first time Holdridge, who has more than 30 years of 4-H experience, had seen a standing ovation at a public-speaking contest.

“She saw the value of helping other people by telling that story,” Holdridge said. “She’s just done an amazing job with it and we’re real proud of her.”

Despite being on the younger end of the 13- to 17-year-old age group at 14, Helené’s strong performance earned her first place.

“She just has a tremendous gift of public speaking,” Holdridge said. “It brings tingles to your spine; you hear [Helené’s speech] and you want to be a better person,” Holdridge said.

“I don’t think there’s a greater gift a child can give a parent, to have them tell you you’re their hero.”

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