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    Wednesday, September 27, 2023

    Ledyard High School senior has a passion for the ocean

    Ledyard High School senior Grace Walenczyk on Friday, May 12, 2023, with Steller sea lions in the background at Mystic Aquarium. Walenczyk is a volunteer at the aquarium. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Editor’s note: For the past 30 years, The Day has profiled remarkable seniors at each of the region’s high school during graduation season.

    Ledyard ― Over the past four years, Grace Walenczyk, a senior from Ledyard High School, has emerged triumphant despite numerous challenges.

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    On March 3, 2022, Walenczyk’s mother, Sara Moody-Walenczyk, died of a heart attack. Prior to her death, Walenczyk said her mother lived through marital abuse and a personal struggle with alcoholism.

    Because of this, Walenczyk spent a lot of time with her grandmother and grandfather growing up.

    “She did have challenges growing up, coming from a family with abuse and addiction problems,” her grandmother Sharon Moody said. “I don’t know a lot of kids that could have just pushed it aside and dealt with things the way she did.”

    Moody pointed to the strength her granddaughter has shown.

    “Even when her mom passed, she was ready to go back to school after a couple days.” Moody explained. “She said she needed to move forward. She’s very resilient like that.”

    Though she is from Montville, Walenczyk, 18, has attended the agriscience program at Ledyard throughout her high school career. Walenczyk’s studies concentrate on marine science in particular — an interest that stems from her own passion for the ocean.

    “I’ve been going to the beach since I was six months old,” Walenczyk said. “I was born in January, but I would’ve gone sooner if I was born in a warm month.”

    This passion also extends beyond the classroom, as Walenczyk has volunteered at the Mystic Aquarium for almost three years as an exhibit educator.

    “Basically, I’m the guy with the microphone,” Walenczyk explained. “I stand at the Pacific Northwest Habitat and I talk to everybody that comes by.”

    In volunteering for so long at one place, Walenczyk noted she has gotten to know the animals well.

    “I know all the animals by name, and I can tell them apart from each other,” she said. “They each have a personality.”

    Moody described how much her granddaughter has learned through volunteering at the aquarium.

    “I quiz her every time we pick her up: ‘Did anyone ask you anything you didn’t know today?’ and she always says, ‘Nope,’” Moody explained.

    In addition to her aquarium volunteering, Walenczyk has participated in Girl Scouts since kindergarten, and is currently working toward her Gold Award — the highest award a Girl Scout can achieve.

    “I’ve gotten my bronze and silver awards leading up to it,” Walenczyk explained. “I’m waiting for the council to get back to me to confirm that I’ve passed so I can get the actual little pin.”

    Walenczyk also competed in shooting for the Quaker Hill Academy Rifle Team, achieving the Distinguished Expert Award at the Quaker Hill Rod and Gun Club.

    Walenczyk is still trying new things. This year, she competed in fencing at the varsity level and made it to the state and the Eastern Connecticut Conference championships.

    Also at Ledyard, Walenczyk is a member of the book club and the More Than Words Club, a group that supports marginalized students.

    Matthew Smith, a teacher in the agriscience program, was Walenczyk’s adviser for four years. He spoke highly of her work ethic and persistence.

    “When she has a goal, I mean, this kid goes for it,” Smith said. “She’s smart, she’s driven, and she’s been through a lot.”

    In the fall, Walenczyk plans to attend the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, to study marine biology and become a marine mammal trainer. However, she is open to other career paths.

    “I’m not dead set on marine biology, that's just what I think I will be doing,” Walenczyk said.

    Smith has no doubts regarding Walenczyk’s ability to achieve her goal.

    “I could see in her the animal trainer or leader of a program,” he said. “One of the people in front of a crowd who has absolutely no fear of the animal or the crowd.”

    Despite the praise, Walenczyk remains humble.

    “I would love to be inspiring, but I don’t think I’ve done anything yet to be inspiring,” she said.

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