• Diana Matthews

'fifteen under 40' brings accolades to young professionals


Nearly 200 people attended a celebratory dinner Thursday evening at The Chef & The Frog to honor The News Reporter’s 2017 class of “fifteen Under 40” winners.

The honorees were 15 Columbus County individuals under 40 years of age selected from varied walks of life and areas of the county.

The number of candidates was up this year compared to last, said project manager Becky High. “Nominations have increased as people in the county are becoming aware of the project,” she said. She urges community members that, “If you know a young person who is deserving of recognition, I hope you’ll keep them in mind and nominate them next year.”

From this year’s candidates, four independent judges selected 15 exemplary young men and women with leadership abilities, who are already working to improve the quality of life for others both through their occupations and in their volunteer activities.

“The winners are a great example from their age group,” said High. “They are making a difference and enjoying living and working in Columbus County.”

The second such annual c e l e b r at i o n was organized by The News Reporter , with support from corporate partners through out Columbus County.

Surprised and honored

Seeing the large crowd and festive arrangements in the restaurant, honoree Jonathan Medford expressed amazement that the project team was “doing so much” for the award recipients.

Other members of the class were likewise humbled by the attention. Dr. Elizabeth DeLouise, wife of honoree Dr. Chris Helak said, “Chris would probably say he’s just doing his job.”

Helak himself missed a good bit of the celebration due to after-hours surgical work. He spoke later by phone (while changing a diaper on the couple’s youngest child) saying, “I was surprised to be thought of for the award. I felt honored to receive it. Elizabeth and I are still very much newcomers here. A lot more people know us than we know so far. But we’re certainly finding our way.

“We’ve been presented with several opportunities to be part of things – Dancing With the Vineland Stars, coaching soccer, plus having busy jobs. We’ve tried to jump right in, and we’ve been thrilled to be part of things.”

Helak said he and his wife have “a lot to be thankful for,” and specifi ed their church and their work partners as being “supportive. We’ve enjoyed the welcome we’ve received. Every day it seems more and more like home.”

LeighAnn Merritt felt that it was “really an honor to be among a great group of people.” Like others in the class, she stressed that she is part of a team. The educator and former president of the Whiteville Junior Woman’s Club said, “The best thing about being in the club, or being active in any kind of community service here, is that it’s easy to fi nd a need and meet it. There’s always somebody willing to help.”

Family members, friends and well-wishers of the 15 filled the restaurant’s large dining room, plus the two side rooms for the meal but squeezed into the main room for the awards presentation.

Evelyn Troy, original director of the Columbus County DREAM Center, was on hand to honor Amber Bellamy, who coordinates the center’s WELL BIRTH program. “I was excited when Amber chose to come work here,” said Troy, “because she had so many places she could go. But she wanted to come back home and give to her community.

“Amber is creative and personable. She helps the young people who want to go to college to organize their plans and get ready.”

Troy also admired the fact that Bellamy “helps her parents with their farm. She knows about farming and she works the farm.”

Some of the award recipients had multi-generational families present. Sid Miller’s parents attended the dinner, as did his young daughter and son. Miller’s wife Stephanie was a recipient of the award last year. Another couple who have now both been recognized in the program are Rachel and Justin Smith.

The connections between generations, said High, show the importance of family support in nurturing community leaders.

“Fielding Hammond’s hometown is Cerro Gordo,” said High when presenting the award to the middle school teacher and baseball coach. “And I think most of Cerro Gordo is here tonight.”

ordo is here tonight.” Stephanie Hammond was a member of that sizeable cheering section. She recalled how her son had impressed people around him with his creative intelligence from an early age.

Before he knew the names of colors, she said, “he used to ask to wear his ‘Kool-Aid shirt’ when he meant a red shirt, or he’d ask for his ‘banana shirt’ or his ‘milk socks and chocolate shoes.’” While in kindergarten, “he taught himself the multiplication tables using football scores.”

For attorney, Marine Corps veteran and fi rst-time father Boyd Worley, being part of the Class of 2017 was a momentous enough event that he and his wife Courtney were willing to leave their 6-month-old son Tyler Henry with a babysitter for only the second time.

“It’s hard to leave him every day,” Worley said. “I’m always excited to see him when I get home.”

As an example of how an energetic young man can step up to contribute to his community, Worley helped to initiate the “F3” men’s group that combines fellowship, faith and fitness activities. Said The News Reporter’s Les High, “When I first worked out with them, I strained three different muscle groups.”

Each award recipient in turn was spotlighted by the presenters and given his or her crystal award, to applause from the crowd.

The project is accomplishing an important goal already, organizer Stuart Rogers said.

“I think it’s wonderful how the members of the class bond together. They’ll always be the Class of 2017,” Rogers said.

“As time goes on, there will be opportunities for them to collaborate. This project was a fun way to bring them together so it will facilitate that collaboration in the future.”

Attorney Butch Pope spoke for the committee of judges. “I want to know when we’re going to honor ‘seven over 70?’” he asked. “I was about to vote for Andy Anderson, but he has neckties older than 40 years.”

Pope endorsed the value of honoring young people who, even after perhaps attending college elsewhere, are willing to return and spend their working years in Columbus County. “We need to get our young people to come back.”

“It’s commendable,” said Harold Troy, “that the organization is paying homage to a generation of blossoming leaders who are becoming the backbones of the community. People like me and Jim High are the generation going out. I applaud these young people for fi nding their niche and going forward with their ideas.”

#15under40 #columbuscounty

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