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Natural leader embodies adage ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’

Kelloggsville—When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited the new Junior Achievement building in Kentwood last month to highlight some of her 2023 budget recommendations, she was introduced by Kelloggsville High School senior Yarlene Valdez.

As the governor took to the lectern, she said with a smile: “All right, Yarlene is going to be governor of Michigan one day. Who’s not convinced of that?”

Kelloggsville teacher Ryan Zuiderveen, who heads up the school’s JA program, was in the audience and said he had to chuckle when he heard the governor. 

It was similar, he said, to the reaction he had when he first met Yarlene in one of his classes and she soon was heading up one of his regular group exercises with no prompting on his part.

“She’s a natural leader,” he said. “But also, when I think of Yarlene’s success this year, it reminds me of the quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca: ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.’ She has put in the work over her four years at our high school, in particular with me the past two years in business, economics and marketing. 

“She had some doors open, but the only reason she was able to benefit is because she was more than prepared to walk through them.”

Yarlene Valdez had a chance to share a little of her story before introducing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Kelloggsville, JA Lead to Success

For her part, Yarlene said it’s the teachers and staff at Kelloggsville High School who have helped her get to where she is as a senior anticipating college and a career in human resources.

“Kelloggsville has helped me grow as a person and student because all my teachers are great,” she said. “They have always personally cared about their students and are great support systems.”

Yarlene Valdez turns the lectern over to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Zuiderveen and the school’s JA class are a critical component in Yarlene’s high-school career.

“They gave me the opportunity to develop my personal skills and passion,” she said. “I didn’t even know I wanted to go into business until I took that class. I failed at a few things, but most importantly I learned. I learned what roles I was good at and what I struggled with.”

Indeed, it was a chance to emcee the Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes West Michigan Business Hall of Fame banquet in fall 2021 that led to the opportunity to introduce Gov. Whitmer. 

“At first I was nervous because I’ve never done anything so big before,” Yarlene said. “But they chose me to be one of their emcees because of some of my experiences in Kelloggsville’s broadcasting class. I was in front of hundreds of people who play important roles in the Grand Rapids community, which made me a little more nervous. However, I got to network with them. Once I got up there and got the flow it felt like I was a natural on stage. It was the greatest opportunity I’ve ever had.”

Or it was, until she got the ask to intro the governor, she added with a smile.

“I literally yelled in excitement,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

When she’s not an emcee or setting the stage for political dignitaries, Yarlene said she keeps busy not just with classes but also sports and clubs, including four years of high school basketball, two years of track and membership in the Be Nice club, student council and the National Honor Society.

‘All right, Yarlene is going to be governor of Michigan one day. Who’s not convinced of that?’

– Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

She also deeply appreciates the diversity of the Kelloggsville school system, something that drew her to the high school as part of the schools of choice program after her elementary and junior high years in a diverse charter school system.

“I appreciate that I have had a chance at Kelloggsville to personally witness and experience people’s different struggles and cultures,” she said. “I have had the chance to build positive relationships, and it has really humbled me as a person.”

Yarlene Valdez credits Junior Achievement for inspiring a possible career in human resources
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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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