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Touring with Kenny Rogers helped Rzepka prepare

Published 9:33pm Thursday, June 10, 2010

Niles Senior High School freshman Abby Rzepka
Niles Senior High School freshman Abby Rzepka

By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News

NILES – It might not be an opportunity available to everyone, but joining Kenny Rogers’ Christmas tour helped Niles Senior High School freshman Abby Rzepka get ready to compete at Miss Michigan next week as Miss Cass/St. Joseph County Outstanding Teen.

“My cousin plays bass guitar for him,” Abby explains. “He asked my mom if I wanted to be in the Christmas tour. I said, ‘Sure. Who’s that?’ I didn’t know he was a famous country singer. Then the next day I saw him on TV.

“I toured Chicago, Merrillville and another place in Indiana. I sang in a group and I had a solo the second night. It was really exciting. There were A LOT of people. Onstage, there are a lot of lights coming at you and you can’t see anyone, so it’s like singing in your own little bubble. The first time I was really nervous, but then I wanted to keep going because it got more fun. You’d be in your room backstage and he’d walk by. My grandma was so excited to meet him she was bouncing around.”

“The first time I sang publicly was when I was 4 at a wedding. I just went up to the microphone and started singing,” Abby said.

“It takes a lot of preparation,” including shopping for her wardrobe, Abby said.

Her confidence has blossomed since her first pageant last summer.

“I was skeptical about pageants, but I’ve really grown from them. My confidence has grown so much it’s unbelievable. I used to be so shy. I’ve learned how to talk to people better. I’m so glad I did this. I used to stand there (motionless), a ‘singing head.’ Nothing moved but my mouth.”

Abby, 14, is the older of Jim and Kellie Rzepka’s two daughters.

Her sister, Madison, 10, who will be in fifth grade at Howard School this fall, will join her onstage as her princess during next Friday’s finals.

Abby, who has danced 10 years at Miss Kathy’s in Dowagiac, leaves Sunday, June 13; checks in Monday, June 14; and plunges into rehearsals later that day. Her interview takes place Tuesday afternoon. Preliminaries follow Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Abby will compete in active wear, on-stage question and evening gown on Wednesday night and talent on Thursday night, when she will perform her vocal presentation, “When You Believe” from “Prince of Egypt.”

She rehearsed Thursday afternoon at South Side School.

Abby prepped for her interview – “the thing that makes me most nervous” – on Wednesday afternoon with two people posing questions from her bio sheet. “I know the oil spill affects animals and the whale that killed the trainer” in case judges question her on a combination of platform and current events.

“I want to do a lot of things,” she said. “I can’t really pick one. I want to be famous, but stay grounded.”

She and two friends perform as a trio, singing ’50s songs at Riverfront Cafe. Their first paying gig is coming up July 8. She plays “a little bit” of guitar and has taken piano lessons.

Miss Michigan’s Outstanding Teen will be crowned from 22 contestants next Friday evening, June 18.

The new queen competes for the title Miss America’s Outstanding Teen in August in Orlando, Fla.

After the pageant, she wants to focus on volleyball to make the junior varsity team and get to a couple of tennis camps.

The princess program has been developed as a fundraiser that brings a group of younger girls into the organization who will one day be part of the Teen and Miss Michigan program.

Miss Cass/St. Joseph County Ashley Solloway’s princess is Abby’s cousin, Natalie Riley, 8, who will be in third grade this fall at Ottawa Elementary in Buchanan. Natalie’s parents are Scott and Dennie Riley.
Abby attended First Presbyterian preschool, Howard-Ellis Elementary School, Oak Manor Sixth Grade Center and Ring Lardner Middle School as she climbed Niles’ educational ladder.

Her platform is PAWS (Promoting Animal Wellness and Safety), for which she volunteers at Cass County Animal Shelter in Cassopolis. She had a rescued cat named for her.

Sixty-four percent of American households own at least one pet. Pet owners need to be educated on proper care, including spaying and neutering dogs and cats because, she says, “There are too many abused, neglected or abandoned animals.

“As people learn how to better care for their pets, as well as make more informed decisions on whether or not to have a pet, the number of animals that ends up in shelters will decrease.”

“It is also important for pet owners to provide proper diet and exercise regimens for their pets,” Abby says.

“One of my favorite events (partnering with Cass County Animal Control) was Christmas for the Animals. On the day of the open house, the shelter received 3,165 pounds of food, 737 pounds of cat box filler and countless other supplies from community donations. It felt incredible to take part in such a worthwhile event. Another fun activity was judging a Halloween costume contest for dogs.”

She has a Maltese, Gwen.

“Not only did I judge,” Abby said, “but I also handed out awards and posed for pictures with the winning canine. I have enjoyed working with the shelter and look forward to future events.” She hopes to continue visiting classrooms to “promote early awareness of proper pet care.”

“Animals have always been a prominent part of my life,” she said.

“From saving lady bugs, hummingbirds and rodents to caring for household pets, I have always had the best interest of all animals in mind.

“As Miss Michigan’s Outstanding Teen, I look forward to volunteering at shelters across the state as well as encouraging others to donate their time, money or pet food.”

The honor roll student does not want to become a veterinarian, but to obtain a degree in vocal music and to become a singer/songwriter.

She’s already written some songs (compare her to Taylor Swift and she says, “Not country”), served on Student Council and as a peer mediator.

Abby won first place in the 41st annual “America and Me” essay contest about her hero, teacher aide Miss Johnson, who helped her overcome anxiety issues. It advanced to state consideration.

Abby sang the national anthem for Relay for Life and at a Veterans Day luncheon. She won the Rookie of the Year award, prepared “Love Bundles” for the Haitian relief effort and volunteered with Salvation Army’s adopt a family. She appeared in a musical that won a national youth award two years in a row.

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