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Riely Ward, VCHS ’22, holds the Vandalia girls’ discus record, the shot-put record, has a full-ride scholarship to the American Welding Academy in Union, Missouri and is smart enough not to spend 75 bucks on salon nails that will just melt under the intense heat of her welding arc. She unabashedly admits to wearing Walmart nails instead. She played football for four years, wrestled for six, and is about as genuine as anyone I’ve ever met. She is a walking, talking, welding inspiration.

An uncommon arc.

When I first met her, my first instinct was to find some kind of inverted parallel between Riely and Jennifer Beals’ character, Alex, from 1983’s Flashdance. Alex welded for a Pittsburgh steel mill, so she could afford formal training at an upscale dance conservatory. Welding wasn’t her true love, music was, and she welded out of necessity. Riely, on the other hand, does exactly what she loves to do, and she loves to weld. But there’s much more to Riely than a welder’s torch; there are no two simple dimensions that define her.

Her first career ambition was to go into law and work as an advocate for rape victims and those impacted by sexual abuse. She wanted to “put the bad guys away.” As she began following real cases, it became painfully clear to her that our justice system simply wasn’t equipped to mete out the actual justice she felt so many of these victims deserved. She read heartbreaking account after heartbreaking account of justice withheld, and made a quiet decision to lend her power of advocacy through less formal channels.

In Riely’s sophomore year, with the help of High School Assistant Principal, Greta Krueger, she started a very special club she called The Grub Club, in which she recruited like-minded high school students to join the middle-schoolers for lunch, just to make themselves available to the younger students to talk to. It was part mentoring, part inclusion for those who may have felt a bit excluded, part mental health, and part just good old fashioned friendship. As someone who has, herself, occasionally felt like an outsider, and struggled a bit with depression, Riely understood what this could mean for the younger students, and she was right.

Riely has a real appetite for life and fully intends to travel the world with her welder’s torch and her love of exploration. She muses that while preparation for her future is important, preparation only offers a partial promise for the outcomes she seeks. Rather, an openness to opportunities and a willingness to seize them when they come— a kind of ‘prepared improv’— is her mantra. Interestingly, for an 18-year-old preparing to meet the 21st century head-on, she has a surprising ‘80s literacy, and knew all about my ancient Flashdance reference. As it turns out, her mother tells her all the time that she really should have been born in the ‘80s. Just as steel town girl Alex welded her way to a dream, Riely’s arc will transcend ordinary and lead to inspiring outcomes. In fact, it’s doing just that.

There’s much more to Riely than a welder’s torch; there are no two simple dimensions that define her.
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