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Exchange honors outstanding students with ACE and Youth of the Year program

At their April 28 meeting, the Columbus Exchange Club honored outstanding students from Lowndes County with the ACE and Youth of the Year awards. Five students were nominated for the ACE awards, which honor outstanding students who have persevered in spite of personal tragedies.  Six students were nominated for the Youth of the Year award, which honors students who combine academic excellence with exceptional community service. Steven Edward McLaurin from Heritage Academy won the ACE Award while Amber Shoffner of Immanuel Center for Christian Education won the Youth of the Year Award. [Rather than focus on just the winners, I have included all of the nominees below.  – Brian Jones]

ACE Awards

The ACE Award nominee from West Lowndes High School was Daniealgle Rice.
“Returning from a trip with your family is supposed to be a routine event that is usually uneventful,” said Dr. Joyce Hunt, who presented all the awards on behalf of the Exchange Club.  “For Daniealgle Rice, a senior at West Lowndes High School, a family trip from Tupelo on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 was anything but uneventful.  On that memorable day, Daniealgle, his mother, and younger sister were involved in a terrible accident.  At first, everyone appeared to be fine.  However, Daniealgle’s younger sister stopped breathing, was put on life support, and was airlifted to LeBonheur’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis with a fractured skull.”

In an essay submitted as part of his nomination, Rice wrote: “When I saw my sister lying there with all of those tubes in her body, it really affected me in the worst way.  I was afraid because I thought I was going to lose her.  My little sister means everything to me.  The thought of losing her was terrifying.”

“Daniealgle did not lose his sister,” Hunt said.  “But he developed a different view of life.  Daniealgle stated in his essay, ‘You or someone you are really close to can be taken away at any time.  Therefore, we should love one another and treat each other with the utmost respect.  Also, I am now more focused than ever on my goals.’  And his most pressing goal is graduation on May 20.  There to support him will be his younger sister, Maya.”
Destiny Bailey was New Hope High School’s nominee. “The Lowndes County Relay for Life Cancer Walk has a special place in Destiny Bailey’s life,” Hunt stated.  “Each year since 2008, Destiny has participated in the Relay for Life Celebration to bring honor to her mother, who lost her valiant fight with liver cancer on June 8, 2008.”

In her essay, Bailey wrote, “A piece of me died along with my mother.  I lost the woman that meant the most to me. Not having a mother has been hard on me because every girl always counts on her mom to give her advice about the guy who has broken her fragile heart or some silly teenage drama that goes on between her and her friends.”

“Some people would not be able to cope well with such a tragic loss at such a young age, but some people are not Destiny,” Hunt said.  “Destiny is the kind of young woman who looks around to see what she can do to honor her mother’s memory, and then she does it.  Last year, at the Relay for Life, Destiny’s family and friends set up a tent, had t-shirts made, and sold raffle tickets.  The winner would receive half the collected money and the rest of the proceeds went to the American Cancer Society.

“Destiny’s dreams include attending Mississippi State University in the fall, majoring in kinesiology, and then pursuing a physical therapy degree,” Hunt said.  “She hopes to live in the Columbus area and give back to her high school, New Hope, by helping special needs children with their own field day or Special Olympics events and by offering her physical therapy services to low income families on a regular basis.”
The nominee from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science was Alexis Hicks.

“What would you do if your mother were incarcerated when you were four years old and you were raised by your loving grandparents?” Hunt said.  “How would you handle the tirades and taunts of children and classmates because your mother was in jail?  And what do you say in response to adults in your community of Hollandale who expect you to follow in your mother’s footsteps?

“Weaker children would have caved with the peer pressure and the insensitive adult comments,” Hunt said.  “But that is not Alexis Hicks’s style.  Alexis is a very bright, determined young woman who set out to prove all of them wrong.  She was not going to become a contributor to the statistic that children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely than their peers to commit crimes.  As Judy Morris, Academic Counselor at MSMS states, ‘Obstacles that Alexis has encountered have strengthened her character and resolve to make the most of her God given talents and abilities.  At Simmons High School, Alexis was ranked number one.  She has continued to be an excellent student at MSMS with a present GPA of 3.71 on an unweighted 4.0 scale.’ ”

Hicks will attend the University of Mississippi in the fall of 2011 and major in pre-med in order to move toward a career in forensic psychiatry, Hunt said.


Heritage Academy’s nominee was Steven Edward McLaurin.

Steven McLaurin accepts his ACE Award from Paul McCreary.

“Being called over the intercom while in class to be checked out of school in fifth grade is often times seen as a good thing,” Hunt said.  “And, at first, that is exactly the feeling that Steven McLaurin of Heritage Academy had.  However, that euphoric feeling of getting out of school early gave way to doubts and fears as he headed toward the office.  His mind raced toward something happening to his grandfather, but Steven never imagined that anything would happen to one of his parents.  His mother, uncle, and pastor were there to tell him the heartbreaking truth—his dad was dead and he had committed suicide.

“As you can only imagine, Steven was completely devastated for he was very close to his dad,” Hunt said.  “It was his dad who had helped him and his brother build the winning pinewood derby racecars as part of the boys’ mission activities at church, and it was his dad to helped Steven design his science fair projects.

“Steven’s grandfather and uncle provided support and love during this critical time,” Hunt said.  “Because the heartbreak was overwhelming, Steven sometimes would become very angry about losing his father and would get depressed about the prospect of growing up without his father’s presence.

“And how did Steven turn his life around and begin the healing process of his enormous loss?  By helping others,” Hunt said.  “On a youth mission trip, Steven openly discussed the effect that his father’s death had upon him.  He also assumed more leadership roles at school after being inspired by a speaker at his Back to School Senior Retreat.”

Hunt said McLaurin plans to go to Haiti this summer to help victims of the 2010 earthquake.  In the fall, Steven plans to attend college to pursue a management information systems degree.
Columbus High School’s nominee was Sparkle Jennings.

“Can you imagine being on top of the world as a high school senior?  You are in the International Baccalaureate Program at Columbus High; you are the Student Body President, President of the Mayor’s Youth Council, and a Drum Major in the marching band.  Your life is everything you want it to be–until December 29, 2010—just four days after last Christmas,” Hunt said.  “On that day Sparkle Jennings was involved in a horrific car accident.  Not only did she fracture bones in her neck and ribs, Sparkle also had health concerns with her lungs.  And if that isn’t bad enough, Sparkle crushed her spine from T2 to T4 and had to have a rod inserted.  She remained in the hospital for several weeks and then moved to Tennessee to recover with her dad.  As Sparkle said in her essay, ‘I was out of school for over a month, and with my being in the IB program, missing school is almost like GPA suicide.’

“Many individuals would have given up, but those people do not have the determination of Sparkle Jennings,” Hunt said.  “Writes Sparkle, ‘I did not know how I would come back and catch up or do the same activities I was used to.  I didn’t know if I would be able to stand the pain while being in school.’  But as soon as she was able, she began to work on her assignments.  And with the help of her classmates, teachers, and the Columbus High family, Sparkle was able to complete her assignments and return to school in late January where she has continued to be an inspiration to others.”   Jennings plans to attend college and pursue a major in criminal justice and a minor in forensic science with aspirations for service in the FBI, Hunt said.


Youth of the Year Award

The nominee from New Hope High School was Ben Saint. “Having a passion for music is an apt description for Ben Saint from New Hope High School for Ben loves to play and perform—and it shows,” Hunt said.  “From being named Most Improved Musician in 2008 to excelling to become the Band’s Most Valuable Player and the Drum Line’s Most Valuable Player, Ben has loved being a part of such an elite band.  Not only has he participated for two years in the Texas Regional Band Competition, Ben has been a part of the Bands of America’s Grand Nationals Top 10 and the Music for All National Percussion Festival.  Imagine the pride and sense of accomplishment of being a proud member of the Marching Band that was selected to march in the Eighty-second Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  As you know, the competition for inclusion in that parade is stringently judged, based on samples of a performance that displays excellence and superiority in musicianship.

“When music is not keeping Ben busy, other school activities are,” Hunt said.  “Ben has served as an officer for his student government association at New Hope, has performed and assisted with stage productions, has been a member of one of New Hope’s athletic teams, and has been involved in various school-sponsored clubs.  In addition, Ben has been very active in our community with leadership positions in his church youth group and volunteer work in Lowndes County and in Texas.  In his essay about volunteerism, Ben writes about his church youth trip to Texas where they helped homeless people who were living underneath a highway overpass.”        Saint has a 3.75 GPA, has earned the 2009 Outstanding French Award, and was named the 2010 New Hope’s Mr. Congeniality, Hunt said.
The nominee from the MSMS was Megan Smith.       Researching a disease and making a presentation about one’s findings would be a normal activity for a student who was interested in pursuing a medical degree,” Hunt said.  “Organizing a fundraiser through your high school club to raise money for the non-curable disease takes that topic to an entirely different level.  This is exactly the kind of outstanding young woman Megan Smith of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science is.

“When Megan attended the Med School 101 Program at Vanderbilt Summer Academy last summer, she chose to research Parkinson’s Disease and discovered the treatments available to persons with Parkinson’s are only a temporary easement for the disease; patients are still unable to live normal lives,” Hunt said.  “Megan knew she didn’t want to wait until finishing medical school to help, so she organized a fundraiser while president of the Future Physicians of America club and enlisted the help of 70 students to raise money.

“Megan also has solicited food for the Amen Food Pantry with her Beta Club, read to younger children, cleaned up her high school’s campus, participated in the pilgrimage, and served as summer youth counselor and Vacation Bible School leader for her church,” Hunt said.

Smith earned the highest GPA in her junior class and has a perfect 4.0 average, Hunt said.  She also received the Junior English Award as well as first place honors in Anatomy and Physiology, Algebra II, and Honors English.  In addition, Smith placed first at the state level in Business Math for the Future Business Leaders of America competition and represented Mississippi on the national level in Anaheim, California.  She was named to the 2009 Softball All-County Team and was the recipient of the 2009 Softball Coaches’ Award.

Amber Shoffner was Immanuel Center for Christian Education’s nominee.

Paul McCreary presents the Youth of the Year Award to Amber Shoffner.

“Amber Shoffner does it all—student leader, choir member, athlete, community servant, and outstanding student—and she is Homecoming Queen and Prom Queen to boot,” Hunt said.

“Not only has Amber held leadership roles as Student Council President and Treasurer, she has also been National Honor Society Secretary/Treasurer.  Her leadership talents are not limited to school government, however.  Amber has also served as Fellowship of Christian Athletes Huddle Leader and Varsity Cheer Captain,” Hunt said.   Amber has been a member of the Mississippi Baptist Youth Choir and Orchestra for three years and is very involved in her local church and its activities.  Her commitment to enhance our local community is evidenced by her dedicating more than 100 hours of community service to make our area a better place in which to live, work, and play, Hunt said.  She is the top of her class and has attained the highest GPA for years.  In addition, Amber placed first last year in MUW’s high school math competition.

Heritage Academy nominated Shayan Asadi.

“Shayan Asadi of Heritage Academy wrote one of the most compelling essays I have ever read in all my years of reading high school essays for Youth of the Year and ACE Awards,” Hunt said.  “In his essay, Shayan shares his transformational story of the high cost of freedom that people in other countries are dying for today and his family’s quest to make that freedom a reality for them.  Shayan tells of his experiences in watching CNN and seeing Neda Agha-Soltan, a single 23-year-old philosophy student living in Tehran, Iran, lose her life as she participated in the anti-election protests.  As he watched his horrific event unfold on international television, Shayan began to understand why his mother and father live in America and why his father became a political refugee.  He now more clearly understood why his father did not return to Iran after studying in Germany, and how precious and fragile freedom can be, to what lengths people without freedom will go to attain it, and how we must use the gifts and talents we have been given.”

Asadi has been actively involved in student government, stage productions, clubs, extracurricular activities, and athletics during his four years at Heritage and has held leadership roles in most of them.  Asadi was selected to attend the Trent Lott Leadership Camp for Rising Ninth Graders, the Mayor’s Youth Council, and the Mississippi Governor’s School as well as the MPSA Student Government Association Conference and the MPSA Honors Conference.  Other additional leadership recognition includes being the recipient of the National I Dare You Leadership Award, the Heritage Academy Citizenship Award for two years, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizen Award.

Shayan also received the Letterman Award in Boys’ Soccer for two years, and received a varsity letter award in tennis.

“Being a stellar student is also a major part of Shayan’s life as attested to with his 4.0 GPA, his earning Magna Cum Laude in the National Latin Exam, holding the highest average in French in the eleventh grade, and being selected to participate as a member of the Heritage Quiz Bowl Team as well as the Heritage Science iWeb Project,” Hunt said.  “Shayan also contributes his time and skills to our local community.  He has helped Heritage to build a Habitat for Humanity house, has assisted at the Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society, and has worked diligently this year to build a playground for disabled children at Baptist Memorial Hospital.  He considers the greatest accomplishment of his young life the founding of the Teenagers Against Tobacco Use group at Heritage that teaches elementary students about the hazards of tobacco use to encourage them to remain tobacco free.”
Columbus High School’s nominee was Rachel Stanback. “If there were a national contest for a teen to represent youth leadership, the standard to be used could be Rachel Stanback of Columbus High School,” Hunt said.  “Rachel is a scholar, a student government leader, a musician and performer, a member of Columbus High’s yearbook staff and school sponsored clubs, and a community volunteer.

“You may have seen Rachel’s write up and picture in last night’s Commercial Dispatch as one of only two high school seniors in Columbus to be named as a national merit finalist,” Hunt said.  “She is one of only 22 students who are members of the first graduating class of the rigorous International Baccalaureate Program at Columbus High School.  Rachel has been named STAR student for Columbus High and has been honored by the LINK for having the highest GPA for three years.

“Not only has Rachel been recognized for her leadership and talents as the recipient of the Mississippi Scholastic Pres Excellence in Yearbook Award, she has also earned the Mississippi Music Teachers’ Association Award,” Hunt said.  “And she was squad captain for her Diamond Girl group.  In addition, Rachel was the runner up in the 2010 Lowndes Junior Miss Contest where she was the preliminary winner in scholastics, interview, and self-expression.   Stanback is president of her social club, and she has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, local nursing homes, Operation Ukraine, the Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society, and the National Walk to End Alzheimer’s.  She also assisted with Challenger Baseball, a program that allows mentally and physically challenged children and adults the opportunity to play baseball.  And she has created time in her extremely busy schedule to work with the HEARTS Tutoring Program and has served as a youth missionary to Peru as part of her church’s outreach ministry, Hunt said.

Caledonia High School’s nominee was Christopher Paden Warren.

“Seizing educational opportunities and challenging oneself to pursue excellence describe well Caledonia High School’s Youth of the Year, Christopher Warren,” Hunt said.  “Christopher does not only excel in his high school activities, he has challenged himself to enroll in six hours of college coursework while completing his high school requirements.  He has earned a 3.9 GPA, has been awarded the Advanced SATP Biology Award, and has earned the highest GPA ever in 34 years in General Music at Caledonia.  Many of Christopher’s awards have been in history:  he placed second in the VFW’s Voice of Democracy program, placed second in the MSU Department of History Award for American Heritage, and earned a five and was a national winner in the AP U.S. History Exam.

“Christopher is also a student athlete and has served as a leader on his cross-country and track team,” Hunt said.  “He was as dedicated to improving his performance on the field as he was in the classroom.  After attending a track and cross country training camp at the University of Arkansas, Christopher implemented the improvement techniques he was taught and then performed so well the following season that he earned the right to compete in the Mississippi High School Track Meet and placed fourth in the 1600 meter race in the 2010 season.”He has cleaned buckets for Operation Ukraine, collected canned goods for survivors of Haiti’s earthquake, and participated in a fundraising runathon, Hunt said.


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