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Finding his voice through volunteering: Yarmouth teenager Cowen Kenney struggled with words but has made strong connections in helping others

Cowen Kenney operating one of the volunteer MC Media cameras at a Mariners Jr. A game.
Cowen Kenney operating one of the volunteer MC Media cameras at a Mariners Jr. A game. - Tina Comeau

Teen to receive provincial volunteer award for the Town of Yarmouth

YARMOUTH, N.S. —

For much of the first part of his life, Cowen Kenney was a young boy of few words.

His mother Melanie remembers waiting for the day she could finally hear him tell her what parents long to hear from their children – the simple words, “I love you.”

But for Cowen things weren’t simple, not even from the time he was born.

Born premature, his little body had a job to do, and this was to fight. To get stronger. To grow bigger. But as he grew older his mom Melanie and his dad Sean realized Cowen was unable to speak.

Until Grade 3, he said very little at all.

There were months of testing and meeting with specialists and speech therapists. Cowen was finally diagnosed with Apraxia of speech (AOS) in which children have difficulty connecting speech messages from their brain to their mouth, his mom explains.

But Cowen was a smart kid. And a resourceful one. Even with his lack of speech he found other ways to connect and communicate with people.

“He learned that hugs and hello could mean the same thing,” his mom says. “He perfected the art of saying hello with a warm hug very early. He continued this way as he continued to get older and gained speech.”

It was a special connection he was able to make with people.

If he didn’t know you he wanted to meet you. And once he met you, he didn’t forget you.

And these special connections continue for Cowen, who is now 13 years old and in Grade 8.

So special are these connections that he was nominated for, and is to receive, a provincial volunteer of the year award for the Town of Yarmouth. He’ll receive his provincial award in Halifax on April 1. And he’ll receive further recognition when the town holds its own event recognizing its volunteers.

Cowen Kenney when he used to volunteer with the Memorial Club. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
Cowen Kenney when he used to volunteer with the Memorial Club. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

VOLUNTEERING IS WHO HE IS

Volunteering is something that has truly given Cowen his voice because it speaks to the type of person he is. His mom remembers times she’d be volunteering when Cowen would ask her when he could start volunteering.

As Cowen grew older she remembers how he found it difficult to find friends amongst his peers. He only gained a speech vocabulary in Grades 5 and 6 that was able to be understood by other children his age.

“For this reason, he lost out on pertinent years of social learning,” she says. “He had to, and still has to, endure bullying on various levels, which has been extremely difficult to see, hear about and watch as my son just wants to be accepted.”

But others have noticed the spark that Cowen has – particularly through his volunteering. As his mother says, he is always the first person to offer help to anyone in need.

He’ll help a 94-year-old Bingo player to her seat and say hello and hug all of her friends who have been waiting for her to arrive. After visiting the Meadows seniors’ facility with his school, he is the kid who wants to go back every Christmas to bring chocolates to the three women he worked with while he was there.

He loved spending times with the veterans when he was part of the Memorial Club and still finds joys in delivering cards to them and visiting with them. At his school he’s joined various clubs and helped out where he can, including with the dance committee, performance group, band, the school’s Community Pride group, hockey, and more.

At the Mariners Centre he has been volunteering with the MC Media group, which is where he has really flourished.

“Volunteering/kindness/helpfulness looks different at different ages,” his dad says. “But this is who he is… I’d say he’s gotten as much out of the volunteering experience with MC Media as the service he’s providing. Everybody is winning, it’s really pumped his tires. It’s given him lots of confidence and he’s developing skills that who knows where they will take him.”

Indeed, it has been a win-win experience.

Cowen Kenney was all smiles when he received his MC Media jacket. CONTRIBUTED
Cowen Kenney was all smiles when he received his MC Media jacket. CONTRIBUTED

“We are truly lucky to have Cowen as one of our volunteers. He is very personable and equally as dependable,” says Mariners Centre general manager Gil Dares who nominated Cowen for the provincial volunteering award. “The real reward, and what stands out most, has been witnessing what volunteering has done for Cowen. His confidence level has increased significantly. He is no longer the shy teen that was first introduced to us. He has become a valued member of our team. We sometimes forget how volunteering changes who we are, and Cowen has been an excellent example to all of us.”

For his part, Cowen is very excited to be receiving the provincial volunteer award. “It’s big for me,” he says.

When asked what he likes most about volunteering he says, “It makes me happy to help other people. I’m always excited to help.”

Cowen is also proud of the fact that he’s following in another family member’s footsteps in receiving this provincial volunteer award. His grandmother, the late Winnie Surette, was a recipient of this same award.

“She helped a lot of people and I am following in her shoes,” he says, flashing a big smile and, before the visiting reporter leaves, sharing a big hug.

“We’re pretty excited,” his mother Melanie says about the honour Cowen is receiving. “With his speech he found it difficult to connect with people on that kind of communicative level, so Cowen found a way through volunteering. He can connect with people and feel good about it. We’re pretty proud of him.”

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