KANKAKEE, Ill. (AP) — Angelle Vanderwarf is the type of girl who doesn’t mind picking up a wrench and getting her hands dirty, despite her manicured and glitter-painted nails.

A senior and cheerleader at Beecher High School, Vanderwarf is a leader in the automotive technology program at the Kankakee Area Career Center. Her leadership has led to several career offers, and she was named a finalist in a national contest.

“I am very passionate about my future goals of going into the auto tech field,” she said. “I take up as many challenges that I can in order to learn new skills. When I help others learn and accomplish new tasks, I see their confidence grow, and it is a great feeling knowing they’re improving.

“When automotive technicians help other technicians, it helps the public drive safer cars.”

Her love of cars and the auto industry began at a young age when she and her parents, Dawn and Andy Vanderwarf, and older sister, Samantha Campos, who is now married, would go to NHRA drag races at the Route 66 Raceway in Joliet and the Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis — races she and her family still enjoy going to.

“I’m always happy at the track, and I wanted something in a related field,” Angelle said. “It’s something I enjoy. I want to wake up and go to a job I love.”

It’s more than just drag racing. Angelle also has a passion for classic cars. Her dad drives a 1972 Camaro SS, red with black stripes, so it was natural Angelle would follow in his footsteps. Just last year, she got a 1970 Camaro SS, black with red stripes.

While both she and her dad agree to keep the cars as original as possible, there were some modifications made. At only 5-feet tall, Angelle was unable to reach the clutch and brake pedals, so her father and neighbor Tim Dircks made pedal extensions. For Christmas, the best present she received was a new bumper.

Angelle won first place in Momence’s Cool Cars Under the Stars final car show of the season last year.

“My dad and I are so busy, but during the summer, we get to spend time together and work on cars,” Angelle said. “I’ve learned a lot from my dad about classic cars and a lot from KACC about newer cars.”

Her parents’ love for cars and racing is further evidenced through her name. Angelle is named after Angelle Sampey, who is a three-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion. Both of Angelle’s parents have met her several times at racing events.

“I’ve gotten her autographs, and she follows me on Instagram,” Vanderwarf said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Students in the automotive technology program at KACC learn to diagnose problems and properly repair vehicles. They learn simple skills from oil changes and tire repairs to the more complicated areas of electronic diagnosis and driveability.

Students take what they learn in the classroom into the center’s full-service automotive shop, experiencing the day-to-day responsibilities of a technician. Angelle is a leader in the automotive technology program at KACC.

“I came in on the first day of class and was asked, ‘What do I want to learn?’” she said. “I didn’t know anything specific; I just said, ‘Anything, I’m here to learn.’”

Angelle has been the program shop manager since she was a junior, a position KACC auto technology instructor James Stafford created because of her. As shop manager, Angelle delegates shop activities, orders parts, tracks work orders and serves as the shop foreman.

She has promoted the KACC program by leading the eighth-grade Career Options Day and has been a part of Sophomore Recruitment Day both years she has been a student at the school.

Angelle has near perfect attendance and an A average in her coursework, earned first place in the SkillsUSA regional conference job interview competition, has been named student of the quarter, is on the KACC student advisory council and has earned NTHS awards for her studies.

“The KACC set me up for success,” Angelle said. “The teachers care about your individual success. You can never learn all of it in two or five years. You are always learning and technology is always advancing.”

Angelle is well-rounded and is involved in competitive cheerleading at Beecher High School. As a junior, Angelle and her team placed third at the International Cheerleading Coaching Association event and advanced to the IHSA competition. This school year, the team did not advance to state, but Angelle said she is “glad how well we ended the season on a great note.”

Angelle ended a two-month internship at Court Street Ford in service advising. When her internship ended, she was offered a full-time position beginning when she finishes high school.

As service adviser, Angelle greets customers, sets up service appointments, scans vehicles for service, schedules service and works with technicians. She worked directly with customers, helping them solve their automotive needs.

“Working at Court Street Ford continued to build on the foundation that started at KACC,” she said.

When she was offered a position, she said she “was shocked. I’m only 17. It’s a great starting point for someone my age to do such a high level of work.”

Working at Court Street Ford is a career path she chose, despite other offers.

During a recent after-school trip, students met with members of the Wrench’d show, and Justin Nichols, the mastermind behind Nichols Paint & Fab.

Nichols was so impressed with Angelle, he got her an interview with professional monster truck driver Tom Meents. Meents offered Angelle an opportunity to drive a monster truck just last month.

“I visited Tom,” she said. “It was a great experience, and I learned a lot, but I felt service advising was a better fit for me, a job I could be successful at and excel at faster.”

Her passion and hard work for becoming a future professional technician got her a Top-10 finalist spot in the national TechForce Foundation Techs Rock awards program. The FutureTech Rock Awards honor students’ commitment to and passion for the technician profession and the transportation industry.

“I was shocked. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, but I didn’t think it was enough to get into the finals,” Angelle said.

She was nominated for the award by Stafford, who nominated five students total. Nominations were reviewed by volunteer judges, including Julia Landauer, NASCAR driver; Tony Molla, ASA; and Brandon Eckenrode, Collision Repair Education Foundation, who then selected the 10 national finalists. The overall competition winner was Jonathon Miranda, an automotive student at Ohio Technical College.

“She’s a standout student,” Stafford said. “She has such a desire to learn.”

Angelle’s advice for other girls interested in the automotive field?

“Don’t back down. Pursue what makes you happy. There are those who say girls can’t do it. But we’re all human. We can all do the same things. It’s about how much work you put into it.”

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