AUGUSTA, Ga. - Evangelita Willingham was named "Youth of The Year" during the 22nd Annual Steak & Burger Dinner honoring members of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Thomson and Augusta last Thursday night.
University of Georgia Football Head Coach Mark Richt served as the keynote speaker of the gala, which drew an estimated 1,000 people and was held at Augusta State University's Christenberry Fieldhouse.
"The Boys and Girls Club is the best in the universe," said Miss Willingham, a member of the Boys and Girls Club of Thomson, after she was announced as the recipient of this year's highest honor. "And just remember, no matter how big or how small you are, just work together and you can be great."
David Greene, who serves as part-time athletic coordinator of the local Boys and Girls Club, said Miss Willingham's speech was both inspiring and encouraging.
"Evangelita did a great job," said Mr. Greene. "She was most deserving of the honor that she received."
Another Boys and Girls Club member from Thomson also received recognition. Ebony Lee was named one of the finalists for the Annual Service and Leadership Award.
"We're very proud of Evangelita and Ebony," said Sharon Meyers, who serves as director of the Boys and Girls Club in Thomson. Ms. Meyers and several of the local staff attended the dinner, which was served by soldiers with the U.S. Army's 442nd Battalion at Fort Gordon.
After being formally introduced as the guest speaker by former State Sen. Jim Whitehead, Coach Richt praised Miss Willingham's speech and extended his congratulations to her and members of the club's choir. He described their performances as "awesome."
Coach Richt, who has been busy of late preparing for spring football practice, also honored the soldiers who served the meals to everyone that attended.
"I couldn't help but notice that they served us our food," said Coach Richt. "I actually thought it should be the other way around and we should be serving them."
His comments led to a standing ovation and rousing applause for the soldiers present.
Coach Richt, who is preparing for his ninth season at the helm of the Georgia Bulldogs football program, said this time of the year is always a busy one, but that when he was asked to speak at the dinner, he couldn't decline. "I knew this was an important event and I'm glad I came," said Coach Richt. "I really do love Augusta. It's a great community.
Coach Richt, who has an overall record of 82-22 in eight seasons at UGA has a winning percentage of nearly .800.
The head mentor, who lives in Athens with his wife and their four children, announced that the UGA football program just became the first college team in America to become affiliated with a new program entitled, "All-Pro Dads." The program, which already has been introduced into the NFL by former NFL Coach Tony Dungy, teaches young fathers the importance of being good fathers and role models for their children.
"We were really, really pleased to be the host of that program," said Coach Richt, noting that a press conference was held to kick off the program in college football.
He explained that he had known Coach Dungy for a few years and that "he just has a presence about him. He loves the Lord. He blessed our program by being there."
Coach Richt said a strong faith-based family and strong leadership are needed within every community today. One such group promoting those types of qualities are the Boys and Girls Clubs, he added.
"We want to enrich the lives of young men," said Coach Richt. He also said in order to be a great football player it also was vital that they remember the importance of being a productive citizen.
Many of the football players at Georgia are there in an attempt to realize a dream - one of those going on to play football in the NFL, he said. But in order for them to realize their dream, someone has to help them along the way.
"No one ever gets anywhere by themselves," said Coach Richt, who formerly served as offensive coordinator at Florida State under Head Coach Bobby Bowden. "All of these young people need somebody."
He told members of the area Boys and Girls Clubs, "Don't be afraid to be uncommon."
Coach Richt also said adults and volunteers affiliated with the Boys and Girls Clubs should be commended for steering young people in the right direction in communities.
"We're called to help those that we're in the authority over," said Coach Richt, adding that he takes his job seriously and that he feels so honored to have such a job where he can make a difference in the lives of so many people. "We want them to reach their potential, physically, mentally and spiritually."