Daniela Russu stepping up in the world

May 20, 1999|By Bob Maginnis

It took a lot of hard work for Daniela Russu to win the Washington County Boys and Girls Club 1999 Youth of the Award. But the first step may have been the toughest - getting here, from half a world away.

Russu, 16, is a native of the Ukraine, a country that was once part of the former Soviet Union. She came here with her family in 1994, in search of a land more tolerant of her father's profession as a Baptist minister. It wasn't easy.

"I was 12. I had to give up all my friends and come to a different society and English was problem for me," Russu said.

The family moved to Hagerstown, where her little brother and sister began attending programs at the Boys and Girls' Club's newest location in the Frederick Manor public housing project.


"My little brother and sister started going to it, and then I started going, playing games and stuff," she said.

Now a junior at South Hagerstown High School, she seldom misses a day at the club, and early on began helping out with the smaller children. She was involved with many activities, including serving as captain of the girls' volleyball team.

"We play and we always win. We never lose," she says, not with an air of boastfulness, but as a matter-of-fact statement of how things are for her team.

Last summer she worked as a junior staff member, helping to supervise and chaperone smaller children during activities and outings like trips to the Potterfield Pool on Frederick Street. She plays games with them that are designed to be fun, while at the same time teaching the children about manners, social skills and how dangerous drugs and alcohol can be.

Her daily service to the club is remarkable in part because it's been accomplished during the school year, and while she was working part-time in a local shoe store.

Her victory will net her a $300 scholarship, and the chance to compete for statewide honors, which carry a $25,000 scholarship from talk show host Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network.

And what will she do if she wins?

"When I graduate I want to be a computer programmer," she says, adding that she wants to go to college in Atlanta, Georgia, where two of her brothers live now.

In one of a number of essays she wrote as part of the "Youth of the Year" competition, Russu said that she's also interested in being a flight attendant, in part because she'd heard it was an advantage to speak more than one language.

She's now fluent in three tongues - Russian, Romanian and English - and has fond memories of a flight attendant who helped her family on their flight to America.

"She was very kind," Russu wrote, adding that "maybe someday I can help others the way she helped us."

But Russu also knows that going on to college will mean leaving behind her friends on the Boys and Girls Club staff.

"They're real friendly and I enjoy working with them, because I can talk to them and they're nice. I'm just proud to go there and I'm proud that they're my friends," she said.

In other essays required for the contest, sponsored by the Readers Diesgt Association since 1947, Russu talked about her desire to stay drug- and alcohol-free, and about her Christian faith. Sometimes, she said, it took people her father worked with time to appreciate the virtues of staying away from substances she admits have damaged some of the "people I love."

The Boys and Girls Club has two locations - Frederick Manor, where Russu belongs, and Pennsylvania Avenue. It's open Monday through Friday from 2 to 9 p.m. For more information on how you can join, volunteer or make a donation, call (301) 733-5422.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor for The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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