The effort to prepare for the Distinguished Young Women of Tennessee competition began with a work day at Arnold Memorial Elementary School Saturday.
Twenty-four young women from across the state will converge upon Cleveland to compete for the title in early July. The work day served as an opportunity for them to turn in paperwork, get fitted for costumes and meet the local host families with whom they will be staying the week of the competition.
The high school girls will arrive in Cleveland July 6 to prepare for the competition, which will take place over two nights at Lee University’s Dixon Center, July 11 and 12.
As they compete in categories like talent, scholastics, fitness and self-expression in hopes of winning the title and a college scholarship, they will give their audience a performance that will feature a specific style of music.
Traci Dunn Fant, one of the state competition co-chairs, said this year’s theme will be “Hits of Motown.”
“We are very excited about this year,” Fant said.
The committee that runs the state competition for what until 2010 was known as Junior Miss has undergone some changes since last year.
Fant said the state committee now includes more young women and former contestants, which were appointed in an effort to add more “youth” to the competition and make it “more relevant” for the current contestants.
One of those efforts has been to provide the young women with more opportunities to get to know more about each other and the mission of the Distinguished Young Women organization before they hit the stage.
The first thing the 24 contestants will do as a group is to have a picnic at Red Clay State Historic Park.
Fant said that will give them the chance to learn more about the history of the Cleveland area and learn more about what the week ahead will hold for them.
In addition to time for practicing things like dance numbers for the competition, their schedules will also allow time for a couple of service projects. They will make blankets together and visit Garden Plaza to give them away to residents who need extra warmth in their air-conditioned home.
The girls will also visit the Cleveland/Bradley County Greenway one day to give out free water to those walking, running or biking on the hot July day.
While only one girl will become the Distinguished Young Woman of Tennessee, Fant said she and co-chair Nikki Wilks will be emphasizing the importance of appreciating “the journey” of competing and promoting the organization’s mission of encouraging girls to “be your best self.”
Wilks stressed it is not a beauty pageant, and that each contestant can use the platforms they have to be positive role models to younger girls even if they do not win on the state level.
“Distinguished Young Women is all about empowering girls,” Wilks said, adding it is importand for girls to realize their worth does not come from their looks.
“We expect qualities like being strong, smart and confident from a man, but we don’t always expect it of a woman.”
She stressed that people of both genders can have positive impacts on their communities.
Fant hails from Cleveland, while Wilks lives in Memphis. There are tentative plans for Wilks to take over as the state competition’s sole chair next year, but the competition itself will likely still stay in Cleveland.
“Our goal is to keep the program here,” Fant said. “Cleveland has been so supportive to us.”