The smart money says Lauren Bell will soon not meet one of the chief criteria for this column: being a resident of the Sauk Valley.
The thought of the fast-riser from Rock Falls moving on to bigger, better things is a mixed bag for Mike Sterba, superintendent of the Coloma Township Park District.
He’ll miss her dearly, because Bell has so many attributes that make for a great column: She’s smart, driven, talented and, my personal favorite, inspiring. She’s been a veritable Swiss Army knife for the district for 10 years now, most notably with the girls skills program, of which she took the helm 3 years ago. The program is for girls in first through eighth grades, and is broken into categories of dance, cheerleading and tumbling.
A few weeks ago, just a jog down Interstate 88, Bell received a degree in nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University, with a minor in dance. But the things she achieved on stage were anything but minor. Tap, ballet, modern, hip-hop. You name the style, she’s well-versed in it.
She got to choreograph pieces, and her favorite show to perform in was “The Best of Broadway.”
Whodathunk that, as a wee tot, Bell was shy? And that’s where programs like the skills camp come in.
“I was very shy when I was younger. Actually, even my first year teaching this, I was terrified about getting in front of the girls and teaching anything,” she said about joining the coaching staff 10 years ago. “I was so quiet. Now it’s nothing. This has helped me a lot, but it took a few years.”
Suffice it to say, it warmed her heart last Friday when girls who knew little to nothing about dance got on stage at Merrill Elementary School in Rock Falls and dazzled their parents during the program’s annual showcase.
“One of my favorite parts is seeing their progress,” Bell said. “Some of these girls come here, and they can’t even do a cartwheel. By the end, they can do a cartwheel and so much more. I think that boosts their self-esteem. And it makes us feel good as instructors.”
Join me in thinking back to when we were little. Summer break rolls around, and it’s time to have fun, right? Therein lay the biggest challenge for Bell and company, who needed to get across that the campers are there to learn, but it can be fun, too.
“On Day 1, they’re kind of crazy and running around,” Bell said. “By the end, they know what they’re doing. They’re in their spots.”
So how does she do it? With tricks of the trade like spirit days – the girls were encouraged to dress up as princesses the day I dropped by, which happened to be Disney Day. Even Bell was rocking her Tinkerbell T-shirt. The campers get spirit ribbons. Cheerleaders who go above and beyond what’s asked get spirit suckers.
And everyone gets Popsicle breaks. Oh, to be young and occasionally easy to please.
While Bell is assured a job with the park district as long as she wants it – she’s been working in the office, selling concessions at tee-ball and taking on about any task that needs doing – Sterba is assuming that she won’t be on the stepping stone for long.
“We want her to go on to bigger and better things, but she’s been a great advertisement for the park district,” he said. “She’s a model young woman.”
He’s known Bell for years, and watching tots flourish into adults like her speaks to programs such as the skills camp and its ability to help unlock potential.
“No question about it,” Sterba said, “one of the big features of the park district is to give kids confidence, no matter what program they’re in.
“It gives them the confidence they need to go on in life and do, really, anything.”
About 5 years ago, at the delicate age of 18, Bell was told there was one thing she couldn’t do properly without medication: digest food. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
While it wasn’t the impetus behind going into her major, it presented something Bell seems to have a knack for embracing: an opportunity to help others.
“I can definitely see myself getting into a field where I can help people like me,” Bell said. “A lot of people try to hide it. It can be an embarrassing thing for some people.
“I don’t hide it. I’m not afraid to bring it up to anyone. I’m not embarrassed about it, and nobody else should be, either.”
She also has no illusions about a major stigma attached to the dancing industry: eating disorders. While neither she nor any of her colleagues (as far as she knows, of course) has battled one, she knows they’re out there. And she wants to do anything she can to stop them.
So she’s looking into a career in which she can work with athletes or a dance company.
And Sterba knows Bell will not only find it, but that she’ll crush it. He tips his cap, knowing that she has the chops to dance professionally, like his daughter, Shanae, is doing in Chicago. She and Bell cheered together at Rock Falls High and danced together at NIU, too.
“You should see this girl dance and perform,” he says about Bell.
He often teases her that she should go for it, to try to be one of those starving artists who, after leaving blood, sweat and tears on every stage that will have them, eventually sits down at the buffet.
But the smart money says Bell will be changing lives in no time, once the right company invests in her.
And, hey, who’s to say she needs to leave the Sauk Valley? There are plenty of health care providers that would be wise to open up their pocketbook and invest in Bell.