On May 20, 2009, Kelson had just finished his junior year in college and was on his way to count waterfowl as part of an internship for the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFW). It was his dream internship. He never made it to the site. His co-worker, James Abram Schneck, 23, was driving distracted, failed to yield at a stop sign and drove into oncoming traffic. Their pickup was struck by a tractor-trailer. The driver, James Schneck, was killed instantly; Kelson died the next day.
Kelson was born on September 3, 1987, to Dana and Mary Ellen (Swana) Vaillancourt in Troy, NY. He has lived in Belle Fourche, SD, Pierre, SD, Augusta, Maine, and Huron, SD, during which time he has developed many friendships and gathered many experiences.
Kelson graduated from Huron High School in 2006. He was a junior at South Dakota State University in Brookings studying Biology and Botany.
Kelson has had a long-time fascination and love for the outdoors. He greatly enjoyed his summer intern job with the USFW, where he helped identify and count birds, plants, and educate the public on wildlife. Kelson was an avid reader and learned naturalist who enjoyed camping and hiking with his family, walking the family dog, bicycling, and particularly, gardening and horticulture.
He was an intelligent young man with a quick wit and a big, generous, loving heart that knew no limits. His kindness radiated through his huge smile and he extended his warm hand to people and animals alike. He was a hard worker and enjoyed keeping pet birds and propagating and growing plants and trees.
He truly appreciated all of the little things life had to offer him and found joy out of the things most people pass without noticing.
His scholarly knowledge in geography, natural science and artistic ability earned him awards including an art contest for the SD Discovery Centers wildlife calendar; National Geographic Geography Bee winner; Best Conservationist Award won at a Conservationist Camp in the southern Black Hills; and Recipient of the SDSU Jackrabbit (Griffith Endowment) Scholarship.
Wildlife biologist, Bridgette Flanders-Wanner, who interviewed Kelson and Abram for their positions with the USFW and worked with them, wrote in a memorial tribute to Kelson and Abram on The Wildlife Society website, “Kelson and Abram started work on the same day. It was evident every day that I worked with them that they both were invested in their work and wanted nothing more than to do a great job. They did not hesitate in their willingness to leap into a new task and do it well. Their commitment ran into the evenings of their off-work hours, when
both would sit down and study their birds so they would be sure to be prepared for the survey work they were hired to do. Kelson was strikingly genuine and honest. He described himself to Abram and me as ‘a shy guy who doesn’t know when to shut up.’ Kelson told us about his gardening. He said, ‘I do vegetables and flowers, but to be honest, I like the flowers better!’ He was unique because he wasn’t afraid to admit who he was. It seemed as if he wore his heart on his sleeve…. they were the same in that they both had bright futures ahead of them. They were both remarkable young men with incredible depth and character. These guys were going places. It was a blessing to have had the opportunity to know them. They are unforgettable individuals.”
In June 2010 in memory of Kelson and Abram, the USFW dedicated The Vaillancourt-Schneck Memorial Nature Trail in the Huron Wetland Management District (WMD) in South Dakota. [View photos from the dedication here].
Kelson’s sister, Loren has spoken out about the issue of distracted driving. As the the reigning Miss South Dakota in 2011, she chose distracted driving as her platform in the Miss America contest. Loren said, “I held my 21-year-old brother’s hand while he died. Just because someone made one stupid mistake, I’m an only child now. Nothing is worth that. No distraction is worth that.”
Kelson is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Faces of Distracted Driving” series. View the video below: