Julie and Dewayne Wilson are glad for the opportunity to work in the Distinguished Young Women program.
This is their third year as host family since “coming back” after a few years Julie took off when raising her children: Caleb 19, Sam 15, Eli 13, and Elizabeth-Anne and Max, 7.
She is a former member of the Pilot Club, former promoter of and volunteer in the Miss Tennessee and Junior Miss programs, and was a contestant in the Miss Cleveland pageant vying for Miss Tennessee.
So when asked again to volunteer as a host mother, Julie replied, “Oh yeah, I’m ready.”
Julie was born and raised in Bradley County. Dewayne was, too, although as a Navy kid, he lived in Spain but returned to Cleveland.
Although it’s the usual thing to be host for two girls, this year, the Wilsons have the privilege to be hosts for three girls. They have kept “has-beens,” also, the affectionate DYW nickname for former contestants.
“I have more fun with the new girls,” Julie confided. “You’re their mother for a week and you make sure all needs are met. It is such an enjoyable experience.”
She added that host families are responsible to feed the young ladies, shuttle them back and forth to the venue and just be there for moral support. The girls are dropped off at 8:15 in the morning and picked up that evening. “Sometimes,” Julie said, “after a day’s activities, you need to cheer them or console them.”
The requirements to be a host family are simple: Have room and space offering separate beds, and ways to transport, supervise and accompany the teens wherever they go.
The whole family is involved in the experience and their children look forward to having the DYW contestants come. The Wilsons one night took the three to a local restaurant and showed them around town, sharing Cleveland. If they get home earlier from the day’s activities, it gives them more time to spend together with the family.
It’s not all work and no play for the contestants. On Tuesday evening, the Wilsons had a cookout and pool party for the all the contestants, along with committee members. Host families picked them up afterward.
The girls enjoy their “own apartment” at the Wilson home — “like a vacation for them,” Julie said. “They’re so cute,” she said. “They get into their PJs and talk about the day.” With four boys, she said, you don’t get that.
She said she really gets attached and misses them after they leave. She said it’s such a life-changing experience — to see them growing and maturing during the week — “they love the activities and routines.” She said the girls are nervous at first, but they get really involved as the week progresses and love it.
The first year, Julie said she cried when they left to go home and said she couldn’t do it. Too, bonding occurs between host sisters for a lifetime and they keep in touch. It’s a time of building relationships, Julie said.
She gave an example of why she will continue to volunteer. One year she had a girl who was nervous because she had never danced. After working with her and talking to her, the girl went on to winning an award.
Julie said to see them accomplish something — “and I see this every year” — is the favorite part of the hosting experience. “I love talking to them and watching them grow and I’m able to contribute. It’s all good.”
She said she loves Cleveland — “It’s the greatest place in the whole wide earth and I thank God for planting me here.”
And the Distinguished Young Women program helps Cleveland — it supports the city in a lot of areas — it helps the economy and everybody.
Julie said she believes in this program and “I absolutely love it.” She said the program volunteers are loving, caring and nurturing to the girls who participate.
She would encourage other families to consider being hosts — especially those who have these young daughters, who can look to these DYW girls as mentors — chosen from the best of Tennessee. To be a host family, she continued, is an honor and they hope the number will grow.
“As long as they allow me to,” she added, “I’ll be here.”