Tennessee Distinguished Young Women co-chairs Charles and Traci Fant both agreed Sunday morning that “Katie” is a “phenomenal young lady” whom they expect will do well in the national contest in Mobile, Ala., in June 2013.
Ward received $5,400 in scholarship money, plus a $250 gift certificate from Orange Blossom Boutique and a cocktail dress from Fancy Fanny’s Bridal and Formal Wear. “The winner in Mobile last year received $30,000 and $1,000 for every preliminary award,” Fant said. Katie won in the self-expression category and talent with her vocal performance of “Astonishing” from “Little Women.” First runner-up was Cleveland’s Ashley Heald, contestant No. 11. Heald is a home-schooled student who enjoys playing the piano, writing novels and instructing dance. Heald’s talent is classical ballet and she performed “Habanera” by The Opera. Second runner-up was Cocke County’s Kristen Clark, contestant No. 19. Clark’s career goals include being an optometrist and professional ballet. Clark’s talent was classical pointe. She performed Gamzatti Variation from “La Bayadere” by choreographer Marius Petipa.
The Spirit Award, the only other individual recognition of the evening, went to Gabriella Broussard, Distinguished Young Woman of Madison County, who participated in spite of wearing a cast on her right forearm and right leg. She is healing from injuries sustained in a near-fatal vehicle accident.
Three winners were picked in each of three categories of fitness, talent and self-expression. The winners in fitness were: Kristen Clark, Cocke County; Ashley Heald, Cleveland; and Alexandra Disterdick, Soddy Daisy. In Talent, the winners were Clark, Ward and Kurtisha Norris, Loudon County. In Self-Expression, the winners were Disterdick, Ward and Lee Won Lieu, Rhea County.
Traci said Katie’s most endearing quality is “her sweet, sweet, sweet demeanor. My mom and dad were her host parents so I was able to see her off and on when I would go over there and pick the boys up. Mom would say Katie is so sweet and sincere — and extremely talented. She is very smart and interviewed well. She’s just a major standout, she’ll do very well.”
The young woman is involved with community theater and the youth group at Saint Peter and Paul Catholic Church. In school, she serves as a student ambassador and Honor Society member and dance team.
Traci and Charles are already planning speaking engagements at civic clubs, schools, and Cleveland MainStreet to keep her in front of the public.
Katie had heard of Distinguished Young Women, but she never really considered entering the competition until, Charles, the new head football coach at Notre Dame High School, talked to all the junior girls about it in May.
“I’d heard about it a little bit from a friend who’d done it the previous year,” she said. “I thought it sounded kind of fun and a good way to win scholarship money for college. I went to the East Tennessee at-large program and here I am.”
She never really considered winning the state program because it could have been any of the 20 girls’ names called as “Be Your Best Self” role models.
“I tried to do the best I could, have fun, and just the experience was going to be enough for me because I had such an amazing week,” she said. “I had no idea. I didn’t think my name was going to be called.”
According to the organization’s website, the “Be Your Best Self” program allows participants to reach out and encourage young people to commit to being their best selves in academics, physical fitness, morality, character, and social and civic participation. The message empowers young people with valuable tools to face the challenges of negative peer pressure. The five elements of the “Be Your Best Self” program are: be healthy, stay physically fit and drug free; be involved, serve the community; be studious, stay in school; be ambitious, set and achieve goals; and be responsible by living by moral and ethical principles.
The element that describes Kati best is ambitious.
“I never stand back. I like to be loud, but hopefully I can make friends with the world,” she said. Katie’s first choice for continuing her education is Elon University in Elon, N.C., a private liberal arts school where she hopes to study broadcast journalism and political science.
“Hopefully that will come true,” she said. “I would love to work for a major news network someday as a political broadcast journalist.”
Her father, Mark Ward, is a Shelby County Criminal Court Judge in Memphis. Katie moved with her mother, Karen, to Chattanooga where she works at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee. She expects to leave any political ambitions to her father. Where does she see herself in the future?
“I love Tennessee, but with my career ambitions, I think I would really love to live in Washington, D.C., because you’re right in the middle of it all. That’s kind of where I picture myself as an adult.”
Katie has one half-brother, Stephen Ward, a chef at Amerigo Italian Restaurant in Nashville, which is fortunate for her since Italian food is one of favorites.
“I let him cook for me every once in awhile,” she said.
It is her mother to whom Katie looks for support and, until Katie got her driver’s license, transportation. Karen still goes to most activities of Katie’s and has the honor of being her daughter’s biggest fan. Saturday evening, she shook like a leaf when the winner was announced.
“When they called number 13, I just couldn’t believe it,” Karen said. “Of course, she has always been my distinguished young woman. I’m just glad she’s recognized for that.”