Spotlight Series ☀ Olympian Julia Clukey

Kids need a lot of people to believe in them. Every kid has potential for greatness and every kid should feel like they belong somewhere.

Julia Clukey called from the training facility in Lake Placid, where she'd just finished up her luge training for the day in anticipation of the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang.  I'll admit, when my phone rang I was a little nervous.  Fielding phone calls from Olympians isn't an everyday occurrence for me.  In fact, that day was a first.  So what does Julia do when she's not busy flinging herself down an icy slide at mind-boggling speeds?  How does electrical engineering come into it?  And what does that have to do with School Square, you're wondering?  Why, I'm so glad you asked...

Throughout the course of our interview, it became clear that several things really drive Julia: education, community and sparking a passion in others.   No wonder the School Square team was smitten!

Julia was born and raised in Augusta and got hooked on luge at the age of 12.  She went on to graduate from Cony High School with the help of teachers who would send her homework while she trained in Lake Placid and family who instilled in her the importance of organization and education.  She'd later go on to get her degree in Electrical Engineering from DeVry University.  She shared that coming from a family of educators has really left its mark on her:

My mother was always involved in something with kids, focusing on low-income students. I realized first-hand the impact they had on kids who didn’t have an advocate for them...how important it is to give back to the next generation.

So you must be wondering, who inspired the likes of this Olympian to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering?  You're darn right I asked her!  

Her answer came in the form of a funny story.  Turns out Julia had the same math teacher in 7th grade math and then again in high school, a Mr. Jared Harvey.  She had always loved math and science (go, girl!) but in his class she realized there were careers in this field and then and there she set her mind to making that happen with Olympian-like-gusto, no less.  This excitement for math and science was solidified when Mr. Harvey had them to do a project where they "built" a stock portfolio.  That summer she worked for her aunt as a housekeeper, and with the drive of an Olympian, actually invested in those exact stocks with the money she made.  "I still enjoy following the stock market!" she laughed.  She credits Mr. Harvey to showing her what kinds of opportunities are out there, and she talked about how important that project was to her as a child:

Seeing there are opportunities around your passion is so important! The younger the better! I always tell students any time you have the opportunity to try something new, you should always say yes. You never know what you’re going to be passionate about.

Her "Julia Inspires" campaign (supported by the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association as part of their ongoing responsibility campaign and community outreach) has brought her into more than 40 schools across the state and has impacted more than 12,000 students.  She tells kids about the importance of saying yes to new opportunities, finding their passion and going after their dreams.  She also believes in the importance of sharing her struggles and instilling in children that it's OK to fail, too.  She wants them to know that their role models haven't always had an easy road and that it's going to take a lot of work, but that they can always pick themselves up and keep moving forward.  As I said earlier, Julia continued to clearly emphasize how committed she is to investing in Maine's communities through our children: 

So many of our problems could be solved if more people dedicated time to their community...kids need a lot of people to believe in them. Every kid has potential for greatness and every kid should feel like they belong somewhere.

But would an Olympian stop here?  Of course not!  She also started Julia Clukey's Camp for Girls at Camp KV, made possible by the Kennebec Vally YMCA, with the focus of building self-confidence and a healthy lifestyle.  So by now you get the idea that between speaking in schools and running a summer camp, she spends a lot of time with students. Here's what we learned about the ups and downs of working with kids:

Q: People often think about what they can provide to students, but those that work with students know we often get just as much out of the experience as they do.  What's something you've learned from the kids you work with?

A: The biggest thing I take away from my involvement is that the world is a pretty OK place.  Kids have great ideas, they're ambitious.  It's easy to turn on the news and it's like a negative highlight reel.  But, when you leave kids, I feel like we are in OK hands.  They're kind, they care about the success of their schools and those are the stories you rarely hear on the news.  It doesn't matter where I am, the kids are the same everywhere with their ideas and ambitions and they're looking for someone to help push them down the path a bit.  We need to step up to the plate and support them.  

Q: We want to keep it real with volunteers, so, what's the most challenging part of working with students?

A: There's never as much time as I want!  I can't say no to anyone, either.  I don't want to leave anyone behind, anyone who would benefit from summer camp.  But, it takes a village to raise a kid and there's so much we can do to help.  I really enjoy the opportunity to give back to the communities across Maine that have supported me and my dreams. My outreach to schools is a credit to the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association and their members that have helped schedule the presentations and allow me to reach more than 12,000 students. I am also grateful to the KVYMCA in Augusta for a great partnership to create the summer camp. It's amazing to think about the hundreds of girls that have come to camp and are poised to do great things!

Q:  You're an Olympian - you have so much to offer and lots of people are probably hesitant to volunteer because they don't think they have something quite as extraordinary to share.  What would you say to that person? 

A:  Twenty minutes in they would change their minds!  There's going to be a kid in that group who is going to connect with you on something - work or just having someone to listen to them.  You'll feel like you belong there and you'll be grateful to be there, too.  

So, you see, schools and athletes go together like peanut butter and jelly.  And School Square's origin story is no different.  Did you know that founder Simon Williams was a professional baseball player?  Can you guess his favorite part of the experience?

I loved it. I loved the end of every home game because we signed autographs for our fans. Win or lose we would line up on the foul line from home to first and then open the gate for the fans. And do you think our youngest fans cared if we won or lost? No! They were getting autographs from professional baseball players. We had our names on our jerseys. How Cool!

Special thanks to the team at Nancy Marshall Communications for making the connection with Julia!  And, thank you, Julia for all that you're doing to improve the lives of children here in Maine and inspire them to find their passions!  We hope that your commitment to our communities will inspire others to get into a classroom, too.

Abbey HutchinsComment