Devastating house fire fails to dampen Ligonier teen's volunteering spirit

| Sunday, July 6, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

After losing everything she owned in a house fire in November, Kelsey Sleasman, 18, of Wilpen didn't feel like celebrating Christmas, her birthday or attending her high school graduation.

“The week I was scheduled to take my SATs, my house burned down,” Sleasman said.

The tragedy was an obstacle, but “it hasn't stopped me from doing what I wanted to do,” she added.

Sleasman recently represented the Byers-Tosh Post 267 American Legion Auxiliary as a junior counselor at Keystone Girls State, a weeklong conference organized by the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Pennsylvania that teaches young girls about government and citizenship.

“It's a program that helps younger women learn more about what government is and how it operates, and you actually participate in a small state election when you're there,” Sleasman said.

“You have your cities, towns, regions, and you have the state. We learn cooperatively how to work. You have mayors, governors, vice presidents, secretaries, treasurers,” she said.

About 200 girls are accepted to attend the conference at Shippensburg University.

Sleasman participated in the conference last year.

“I learned how to speak in front of people better, and it really helped my leadership skills,” she said. “I've always been shy.”

Sleasman recruited her cousin, Shania Barkley, 16, of Bolivar to attend the conference this year. Barkley admires her cousin's dedication to the auxiliary.

“She helps out a lot of people,” Barkley said.

When Sleasman was younger, her grandmother, Martha Robertson, got her a membership to the American Legion, and about three years ago, Sleasman became more involved with the group's activities, which helped divert her attention from the aftermath of last year's fire.

“I enjoy being able to help people,” she said. “I like doing a lot of the fundraisers, like the poppy sale. I have fun because I know that my efforts are actually helping veterans.”

Sleasman's grandmother passed away about eight years ago, but close family friend Marcia Clawson, 60, of Ligonier is like a grandmother to her. As a member, Clawson has supported Sleasman's involvement with the auxiliary and admires her for taking the time to contribute.

“I have been so proud of her willingness to step up to the plate when it comes to volunteering,” Clawson said.

Sleasman is the auxiliary's historian this year and has been tasked with making a scrapbook of the group's activities to present to the president. She had to start over when she lost all of her scrapbooking items in the fire.

“I like to look at the memories,” she said. “Memories are something that may fade, but when you have a photo, you can always look back on it.”

Sleasman, who graduated from Ligonier Valley High School last month, plans to study nursing in the fall. She wants to spend her summer working with the auxiliary, pursuing her love of helping others.

Her family will likely move into their new home in several weeks, she said.

“I know other people go through this, and I just want them to know that if they ever need anybody to talk to, I'm always here,” she said. “I just want people to know that they're not alone.”

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or

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