Forget practicing routines, discussing current events and mock interviews — months of preparation readied the high school seniors for those categories.
Shopping — the teenage girls and representatives to Alabama’s Distinguished Young Women program agreed — proved the most challenging.
“It was a very hard process, especially finding an interview outfit. You want to get something that looks classy and simple without being too boring and old,” said Lawrence County’s Distinguished Young Woman Rachel Hutto, modeling her black knee-length dress topped with a light gray jacket.
Danielle Cassady, the representative of Limestone County, agreed.
“They tell you not to go out and buy something, that you should have something in your closet. If a girl actually does that, more power to her, but I’ve been spending a lot of time at the mall,” Cassady said.
Cassady, Hutto and Mariana Threadgill, of Morgan County, will join 49 other girls from across the state this week to compete for more than $130,000 in scholarships and the title of Distinguished Young Woman of Alabama, formerly called Junior Miss.
The participants, who arrived in Montgomery on Friday, will spend the week speaking with community groups, practicing routines and visiting elementary schools.
“We will be talking with them about what it means to ‘be your best self,’ the motto of Distinguished Young Women,” Cassady said. “To me, being your best self means not worrying about being who someone else wants you to be — just be who you are.”
The finals will be Saturday night at Frazer United Methodist Church in Montgomery.
Judges will evaluate the contestants on interview, scholastics, talent, fitness and self-expression. The winner will represent the state in the national program June 27-29 in Mobile.
School: Austin High School
Parents: Charles and Tammy Threadgill
Talent: Dance en Pointe to “God Bless America” by Celine Dion
Mariana Threadgill dreaded the inevitable day.
She could picture the piece of paper in Jennifer Erickson’s hand. After 12 years as a member with Erickson’s Dancer’s Inc. company, Threadgill saw no escape.
“I did not want to do it, but Jennifer has been involved in the program and kind of makes you participate,” Threadgill said. “I was just waiting this year for her to pull out the Distinguished Young Woman application and, sure enough, she put the paper in front of me and said ‘you’re doing it.’ ”
She couldn’t say no.
In August, the local program featured 10 Morgan County high school seniors. Threadgill walked away as the overall winner and the winner of the talent, fitness and self-expression categories.
“We really don’t like to call them winners. We like to call them participants because all of our young women are winners. These are amazing ladies going for the title,” said John Vaughn, organizer of the Morgan County program.
The scholarship will help fund Threadgill’s education at the University of Alabama, where she plans on studying nursing and Spanish. Inspired by a friend’s mother, the one-time aspiring veterinarian dreams of working as a nurse practitioner.
“I loved animals and never thought of nursing, but the mom of one of my friends was a nurse and I saw how much she helped others and how she changed lives. Seeing her with people made my heart melt,” Threadgill said.
The Austin High School student hopes to translate her passion for others to the panel of judges through her interview, self-expression and talent.
During her dance en pointe to “God Bless America” by Celine Dion, the judges, Threadgill said, will see her heart and soul.
“For me, dance is an outlet. I feel bad for others who don’t dance because I don’t know how they get out their emotions. Through dance I am able to express anger, happiness and joy,” said Threadgill, an assistant dance teacher who spends 16 hours a week at the Decatur studio. “Dance is more than what I do. It is who I am.”
Tracey Boone with Dancers Inc. choreographed the patriotic routine.
To prepare for the interview, Threadgill has been reading editorials, studying current events and discussing controversial topics.
“I was skeptical of doing this at first because I have a fear of failure. It has been such a fun experience,” Threadgill said. “I’m looking forward to representing Morgan County and being able to grow as a person and truly being able to be my best self.”
School: East Lawrence High School
Parents: Randy and Darlene Hutto
Talent: Dance and tumbling routine to “What a Feeling” by Global Deejays
Rachel Hutto quickly nodded and glanced above the fireplace at the framed picture of her as a toddler.
“I only did a pageant once and you can’t blame me. I was too young to know better,” Hutto said.
“There was no way we would ever get her in a pageant again,” said Hutto’s mom, Darlene Hutto.
This week, Hutto will dance in front of judges, display her poise and answer an on-stage question. But this is no pageant. This is the Distinguished Young Woman program, where the “p” word lands in the realm of four-letter curse words bleeped out on television.
“This is anything but a pageant,” Rachel Hutto said. “This is totally different and something I have always wanted to do because it is a great opportunity to earn scholarship funds for college.”
For Hutto, a three-time participant in the Distinguished Young Women’s little sister program, the opportunity almost didn’t exist.
“The organizer who had done the program the past couple of years couldn’t do it. At the last minute, a former organizer pulled it together. We had to get special permission from the state because we were past deadline,” Rachel Hutto said.
Somewhere between cheerleading and softball practice, church services, volunteering at the nursing home and meetings of the Beta Club, Leo Club, National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, Library Club, Ecology Club and Native American Club, Hutto choreographed a routine, shopped for outfits and practiced her interview skills.
“I was and kind of still am most fearful of the interview. I had never done an interview and my first one was in front of five judges. All eyes are on you. You really have to know your opinions,” Rachel Hutto said.
To prepare for the interview, Darlene Hutto quizzed her daughter during meals, in the car and on the way to church.
“Any spare moment we had I was asking her questions,” Darlene Hutto said. “When she was named Distinguished Young Woman of Lawrence County, I was proud, but I was really, really proud when she won the interview portion.”
For her ’80s-inspired dance and tumbling routine to the Global Deejays’ “What a Feeling,” Hutto combined eight years of dance with her high school cheerleading experience.
“The best part of this whole program has been learning more about myself and gaining confidence. Through this whole thing, I have done things I never imagined I would do. It is a great experience,” Hutto said.
With the awarded scholarships, Hutto plans on attending the University of North Alabama.
School: East Limestone High School
Parents: Daniel and Sheila Cassady
Talent: Monologue of “Inches” from “Any Given Sunday”
Juggling cheerleading, tutoring, volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club and work, Danielle Cassady struggled to find time to channel Al Pacino.
“I don’t listen to the radio in the car anymore. I just run through my monologue over and over again,” Cassady said.
When the 17-year-old East Limestone High School senior steps on stage for the talent portion, she wants to exude Pacino’s intensity to the audience.
“It is going to be hard work to make the audience believe I’m Al Pacino giving a pep talk to a football team in the locker room. I will have to take all my energy and put it in this one performance,” Cassady said.
For the talent competition, Cassady will perform “Inches,” a monologue from the movie “Any Given Sunday.” She is one of three participants who opted for a dramatic vocal presentation.
“I wasn’t placed in dance as a kid and I was not blessed with an angelic voice. What I do is public speaking and a monologue is the best way to show off that strength,” Cassady said.
Cassady earned the opportunity to go to the state competition during the at-large program last summer.
Unlike Morgan and Lawrence counties, a local Distinguished Young Women program does not exist in Limestone County. Girls interested in representing the county must compete in the at-large program, where judges evaluate contestants on interview, talent, fitness and test scores.
“This summer I got to meet several of the contestants. I am very excited about seeing them again. I have done pageants all my life and this program is very different. It is not cut-throat and it is all about the scholarships,” Cassady said. “The program truly epitomizes its motto to ‘be your best self.’
“What’s really helped me to discover my best self has been my tutoring and work at the Boys and Girls Club. It has allowed me to be the best I can be for someone other than myself,” Cassady said.
After graduation, Cassady plans to study business administration and pursue a career in law to follow the passion she discovered as a seventh-grader.
“When I was in the seventh grade, we took a field trip to the courthouse. When I saw the lawyers and judges in action, I was hooked. I knew immediately that is what I wanted to do,” Cassady said.
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