The small smiley face in the left hand corner of Gracee Graves’ bright yellow shirt tells the whole story.
Gracee’s current mood, according to the shirt? All smiles. And she wants to spread that mood to everyone she meets.
“I love animals, even though I am allergic to cat fur and dog fur,” Gracee said. “When I’m older, I want to help them overcome their injuries and stuff. If they don’t have an arm, I want to make them an arm. I don’t want them to just have three legs. I want them to be happy and healthy.”
Gracee isn’t the only one smiling. As she shares her story, she frequently has Scott Musselman laughing out loud as he listens in. Musselman is the director of operations for the Boys & Girls Club of the Bighorns.
That’s just the kind of person Gracee is, Musselman said – someone whose very presence brings a little ray of sunshine into a cloudy day.
“Gracee is just a wonderful little girl – compassionate and empathetic,” Musselman said. “Her poise and honesty and genuineness won over the judges of the state competition, and it has won over everybody at our club. You really can’t help but love the little girl.”
Graves’ smiling face has won over a lot of new fans over the past few weeks, according to Musselman. Earlier this month, the Cloud Peak Elementary School fifth grader was named the Boys & Girls Club’s Junior Youth of the Year for the state of Wyoming in a contest held in Cheyenne. Musselman said that, to his knowledge, no Buffalo student had received the honor before.
“The judges were like, ‘So we decided to choose Gracee’ and I didn’t know what to say,” Gracee said. “I felt excited – like this is the real deal, you know?”
The junior youth competition is held by the club on a state level every year to honor exceptional students, Musselman said. Students are asked to write a speech and essay about their club experience and compete against other students from across the state. Musselman said that, even before the state contest, Gracee had held her own in competitions against other students from the Boys & Girls Club of the Bighorns and from the Boys & Girls Club of Central Wyoming, which includes clubs in Casper, Dubois and Glenrock.
Despite competing against several middle school-age students in the state competition, Gracee’s honesty and optimism won the judges over, Musselman said.
“I talked about my real dad and how my stepdad stepped into his place,” Gracee said. “I talked about how I had overcome problems in my life and how the Boys & Girls Club wasn’t just a day care. It is a place to have fun and to be around people my age and to learn stuff.”
Gracee said she put in hours of work in preparation for the state contest.
“I stayed up late nights, really late nights,” Gracee said. “There might have been a little bit of crying involved.”
But the effort was worth it, Gracee said.
“It was more than an award when I actually got it,” Gracee said. “I accomplished a goal, and it’s something that I’ll have with me for the rest of my life. Nobody can take that away from me.”
And that’s something to smile about.