- Maria Hernandez, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland Youth of the Year 2010, who received the Empowering Women Junior Award;
- Collette Murray, head coach of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women’s golf team, who was given the Empowering Women Global Award; and
- Debbie Ledford Melton, manager of the Don Ledford GMC/Chevrolet dealership in Cleveland, who received the Empowering Woman of the Year Award.
Murray was one of two keynote speakers for the Thursday night festivities, along with Hollywood film and TV actress, author and philanthropist Jennifer O’Neill.
Before 1990, there was no program for girls who needed help the most, according to Charles Sutton, executive director of the local Boys & Girls Clubs.
In the 21 years since the Boys Club became the Boys and Girls Clubs, many programs have been started, added and revitalized giving young girls role models of professional women and the knowledge “they too can be successful,” Sutton said.
The Empowering Women event was created to increase awareness, programs and empowerment at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cleveland for adolescent girls to development their education, life skills and character.
O’Neill is best known to the world as an actress of close to 40 movies and a glamorous model for Cover Girl for an unprecedented and record-making 30 years.
“All that glitters isn’t gold,” she told the assembled crowd.
It seemed to surprise the audience that O’Neill had once attempted suicide, had been seriously injured and almost died, her daughter was sexually abused, and she has had several failed marriages.
But none of this ultimately defeated or stopped O’Neill because she had two important elements in her life.
She had her beloved aunt Ellie as a kind and loving mentor and role model when she was a young woman, she said, as her voice caught in her throat for a moment, as if swallowing back a tear and a memory. A shining example of a strong woman as a mentor is extremely important in helping a young woman develop with confidence and empowerment.
The major turning point in her life, however, came at age 38 when O’Neill became a born-again Christian.
She is now 63.
“It is hard to talk about the bigger mistakes that one makes,” O’Neill said, “until I came to my faith.”
It changed her life completely.
Now, she tries to help and mentor others, like her aunt Ellie did her.
O’Neill’s advice to young girls is to remember and cherish their uniqueness and individuality.
“Each and every one is and has a gift,” she said. “Set your sites and values high. True self esteem is to embrace God’s gifts. Whatever life looks like from the outside, the yardstick for success is a gracious confidence.”
O’Neill is currently making more movies, has written an autobiography, a book titled “From Fallen to Forgiven/A spiritual journey into wholeness and healing,” is the mother to three children, works on fundraisers for Pro-Life and teen organizations, as well as has a ministry using horses, a passion all her life, that helps many people who need spiritual and emotional healing.
Murray had a different experience growing up.
“I was a wee tomboy,” she said in her Scottish brogue.
Although now 29, growing up in Scotland, she was told over and over and over again that she couldn’t do certain things because she was a girl.
“But I wouldn’t let the fact that I was a girl stop me from doing what I wanted to do,” she said. And in time, and with some twists of fate, “I am proud to be part of the movement to change things.”
Murray was a member of the Scottish golf team and represented the Scottish National Teams in both lacrosse and soccer.
But she excelled in other areas. Having dramatically improved the coaching in a very short time while at Jacksonville State, she easily moved from player to coach, but not without also winning seven top-10 finishes and 15 top-20 finishes.
When Murray was offered the job as the head golf coach at UTC, she had a revelation.
“I wasn’t always confident (as a youngster),” Murray admitted. “Not believing in myself, I saw how it hurt me.”
But she wanted her students to fulfill their highest potential. She admits she’s not a big talker, but likes to lead by example. So, the most important element in her world that allows her to be empowered is her faith.
“I suddenly became aware I was going to be a leader,” she said. She was going to have 18 or more students looking to her for direction and guidance. She realized she had to believe in herself if her students were going to believe in themselves. She needed to be an example to them. “I needed to believe I could do it.”
But even though the opportunities are great for young ladies these days, Murray said, they still need to be accountable and take advantage of these opportunities.
“Figure out your dreams and how to go after them,” she advised the young girls out there. “Feel you have control over your decisions and grow from your mistakes.”
Being empowered means to be independent, yes, but also get support and guidance from your family and people you trust, she said. Develop respect, work hard and be dependable, she added.
And she tells all her players the following: Owning the right to win is what it means to be empowered.
“Confidence is a choice,” she said. “That is empowering yourself.”
To contact the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cleveland, call 472-6826.