The idea of “Be Your Best Self” is so simple and almost elementary. Yet those four words hold the power to plant a seed in children that will forever transform them. I have learned this lesson as I shared and celebrated the BYBS message with underprivileged children through my role as Distinguished Young Woman of North Carolina.
One particular presentation was especially memorable for me. I recently presented the BYBS message to about 50 elementary-school age children at the Boys and Girls Club in my community. I wanted to make sure that the message would be fun for them and leave a personal and lingering impact. So, I gave each child a handful of colorful play-doh and let them spend time molding it into something that represented what they wanted to become one day.
As they worked with the play-doh, I walked around, talking with each child and listening to them talk about their dreams for the future. I marveled at the beautiful magnifying glass an aspiring chemist created and the pair of ballet shoes a future ballet teacher molded. After they shared what they created, I then explained that we are a lot like play-doh. We can become anything that we want to if we work hard and make good choices. The decisions we make each day help mold us into the person we become. I then shared the five areas of decisions we make every day-- to be healthy, involved, studious, ambitious and responsible. I asked the kids to help me come up with examples of good decisions we can make in each area. I was amazed as they took over and gushed about how they take care of their younger sisters, try to defend a kid who gets made fun of or decide not to cheat on a test. We also talked about mistakes. I took a piece of play-doh and smashed it into a pancake between my hands. I explained that we are all human and that sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we mess up. However, no matter how big the mistake is, it is never too late to start over to become something new -- just as you can mold smashed play-doh into a new creation.
Afterwards, I sat around with the kids laughing and talking and listening to how the message had inspired them. Kids ran up to me, touching and looking at my medallion and showing off their play-doh creations. One little boy asked if they could please keep what they made. When I told the children they could keep their creations, they squealed and ran off to their backpacks to put their treasures, reminders of their dreams, in a safe place.
I then shared with them that my passion was performing. I talked about what my dreams are and how hard I have worked and practiced. Then I sang a special, inspirational song for them. Afterwards, four little girls surrounded me, begging me to teach them to sing. Long after all the other kids had run off to their other activities, I taught those four little girls “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, singing each phrase to them and then helping them sing it back and piece the phrases together. It tugged at my heart to see the sense of accomplishment and joy swell up in them when we recorded them singing and then let them listen to their own performance.
When I talked to the executive director afterwards, he shared with me that these children came from very difficult and sad home lives. He explained that one child had even come to the program one day with rope burn around his neck where he had been dragged through his yard. Coming from homes where they are neglected, abused and certainly never encouraged to “be their best self”, some people would predict that these children will never reach their full potential. I wish those people could have been there with me that day. It was inspirational and reassuring to watch as these children joyfully and effortlessly latched onto the chance to be happy by working hard at something new. The opportunity to explore in a safe place where they were encouraged and respected gave them solid ground to grow from. That is something every child deserves to have. I was so touched by my experience with the children at our Boys and Girls Club, that I plan to dedicate my next annual benefit concert’s proceeds and message to the club. I want to come back and help those little girls prepare “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a choir to sing in the concert.
Earlier this year through the Distinguished Young Women of North Carolina program, I had the privilege of joining a sister county representative to share the BYBS message with another very special group of children in a Greensboro underprivileged elementary school.
We walked around as they worked with their play-doh, and my attention was drawn to a little boy who carefully crafted an intricate and colorful fruit cart. It was a true piece of art -- not merely an elementary play-doh creation. I complimented him on the beautiful sculpture and asked him if he wanted to be an artist. He looked up at me with his brown eyes and said “Well, that would be really nice. But I need to be a pro football player so that I can make a lot of money to send home to help my family.” I was so touched by his maturity and giving heart far beyond his years that I sat and talked with him, trying to encourage him to be true to what he is passionate about and believe that he has something special to offer. As we continued with our presentation, I noticed a new spark in him -- something that I think may have been the courage to believe in his own abilities and promise.
The “Be Your Best Self” message is one that I have been blessed to witness and carry forth. I believe that it has the power to transform the self-esteem and futures of young people everywhere. I watched it inspire hope, confidence, joy and dreams in children who are facing the most difficult of trials. I know that I will be a life-long ambassador of this program, carrying it with me wherever I go and sharing a piece of it with whomever I meet.
Christina Maxwell is preparing to start her freshman year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan majoring in musical theater. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, Christina was a participant in the Distinguished Young Women program and was selected as the Distinguished Young Woman of North Carolina for 2012 and the Distinguished Young Woman of America for 2012.