NORTH VERNON — One hundred Jennings County High School girls learned last week that no matter their background, where they live or their circle of friends, they can accomplish great things in their lives.
Speakers at the second annual REACH conference emphasized that dreams can come true if the teens are willing to set goals and work hard to achieve them.
Katie Stam, Miss America 2009 and a Seymour native, told the girls gathered Wednesday at the Park Theatre that they have to look to the future and imagine all the possibilities.
“I thought being Miss America was the biggest dream I could possibly have,” Stam said. “That’s the beauty of dreaming. That was my shooting for the stars.”
The day included the high school girls wearing matching black-and-pink T-shirts with the logo for REACH — an acronym for respect, empower, achieve, challenge and happiness.
Sponsored by the Women’s Giving Circle through the Jennings County Community Foundation, the event was free for the girls. Area businesses and organizations also provided financial support.
The teens heard Stam talk about growing up on a dairy farm in Jackson County but always having the dream of being Miss America and a television journalist. She has achieved both through persistence and determination.
They also heard ABC television correspondent and former Mrs. USA Kellie Lightbourn tell how she grew up in a poor family but was determined to succeed even though it appeared the odds were stacked against her.
Lightbourn knew education would be a key to her success and went on to earn bachelor’s, two master’s and law degrees. She earned
$1 million her first year as an attorney but decided she wanted to work in television, which initially required a significant pay cut and going back to community college to take more classes.
“If you don’t believe in yourself no one will,” Lightbourn said. “Don’t give up no matter what people say.”
The girls learned that success also can come closer to home by listening to a panel of four women who went to school in Jennings County.
Murielle Webster Bright earned her law degree after graduating from Jennings County High School and now operates a law firm in North Vernon.
Bright, who said she loved growing up in a small town, encouraged the girls to make the most of their high school and college educations and to surround themselves with people with similar values and goals.
When the panel was asked how they dealt with the negative pressures in college, member Matzine Sanchez, who works for an international logistics and supply chain management company, said it can be a challenge.
“You find out a lot about yourself in college, your strengths and your weaknesses,” said Sanchez, a Jennings County High School and Ball State University graduate. “Find someone you can talk to and keep your focus.”
Sanchez also recommended looking for social groups related to academic study areas as a way to have a more positive social outlet.
Panelist Sarah Vincent, who has been a college professor and student adviser with a master’s degree in sociology, encouraged the teens to remember why they planned to attend college, how important it was to achieve their goals and how expensive tuition is.
Those reasons, Vincent said, helped her stay focused on her studies instead of partying.
Panelist Michelle Sharp Sollman added that making the move from high school to college will take learning to be more organized and self-reliant.
“You won’t have your parents reminding you to get up for an 8 o’clock class,” Sollman said.
Lightbourn, who lives in Tampa, Fla., and often provides motivational talks to teen girls, spent part of Wednesday’s five-hour conference trying to instill confidence in the Jennings County group.
She let her guard down a bit by showing an untouched photo of herself taken first thing in the morning — no makeup, dark circles under her eyes and frizzy hair.
Lightbourn said magazine and publicity photos are retouched and can make young girls feel bad about themselves. Girls don’t feel like they can live up to the beauty standards they see.
“You are beautiful,” Lightbourn said and had them repeat to her, “I am beautiful.”
The girls also had signs taped to their backs where others wrote positive qualities, such as funny, smart, creative or good friend.
But Lightbourn said the girls had to be willing to work hard to achieve their dreams. It might take years of work, failures along the way, ignoring negative comments and not giving up when you think you can’t go on.
“You guys are a blank slate,” Lightbourn said. “That’s exciting.”
Barbara Shaw, executive director of the Jennings County Community Foundation, said she was pleased with the day’s speakers and the interest level of the girls. As a followup, the girls will be assigned a mentor who will contact them.
“We would love to make the conference even bigger next year,” Shaw said.
High school junior Megan Sherrill, 16, attended with her sister, Gretchen Sherrill, 14, a freshman.
“I thought it was a lot of fun,” Megan said. “I like that both speakers came from close families and that they have accomplished so much in their lives.”
Junior Stacia Schmidt, 16, said breaks with upbeat music and dancing made it fun, but the message she’ll take with her is that she doesn’t have to be afraid to go after what she wants.
Averie Maschino, 15, also felt inspired that everyone can go after their dreams. “No matter what happens, you can still have hope.”