February 27, 2009
To leave a place better than we found it is a laudable goal, but one we don''t always attain. That is not the case for Casey Stephens Chudy. This week, the young wife who followed her then-student pilot husband to Columbus Air Force Base in 2004 moves on with him -- and their two children born in Columbus -- to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C. But in her time here, the former Junior Miss from Barren County, Ken., has directly and positively impacted the lives of dozens of young women planning for college.
"When Casey and her husband, Kendall, came to Columbus, she was interested in working with the local Junior Miss Program but soon found out Lowndes County didn''t have one," said Lynn Atkins, of Columbus. Atkins was one of the first people to respond five years ago when Chudy broadcast an appeal through The Commercial Dispatch for others interested in resurrecting the Lowndes Junior Miss program. "Casey quickly got busy and set up an organizational meeting," Atkins added.
The local program, part of the America''s Junior Miss network, strives to empower outstanding high school women by providing scholarship opportunities, developing life skills and encouraging positive values.
"The Junior Miss program is something I''d always been involved in," said Chudy, 28, a former teacher at Annunciation Catholic School. "Once I married, we lived in Florida for six months. I was fresh out of college and exhausted from school. But when we came here, I was done with my rest; I was ready to do something."
After Chudy''s online research revealed her new home had no current program, she contacted the state director. "When I saw how big the county was, how many high schools there are, I knew Lowndes had the potential to have a fantastic program," the mother of 3-year-old Kaden and soon-to-be 1-year-old Mabry said.
The Lowndes County Junior Miss system has since produced not only strong local scholarship winners, but a state winner as well, in Caitlin Smith, Mississippi''s 2007 Junior Miss.
In February, Chudy was proud to see a very talented group of local participants vying for $4,250 in cash scholarships in five categories: talent, scholastics, interview, fitness and self-expression. At the state event -- which Lowndes winner, 17-year-old Rachel Burttram, will attend in July -- cash scholarships total more than $50,000. Rewards are even greater at the national level.
"I don''t see how she does it," said Burttram, a junior at Heritage Academy. "She was so organized throughout the whole thing. She loved all us girls, and we all felt we could go to her for anything. She put her whole heart into helping restart this program."
Chudy, in fact, choreographed the competitive fitness routine and all dance moves and coached the girls in their on-stage presence. Before her arrival, local students could only hope to participate in the scholarship program by going first to Meridian for access through the state''s "at large" option, as Atkins'' daughter, Lauren, 2003 Lowndes County Junior Miss, did.
"In the years that Casey has been here, she''s chaired this program with an awesome amount of energy and enthusiasm," stated Atkins. "The thing that has impressed me the most is that she came into a community where she knew no one, picked up this program and started it from scratch -- and it''s just amazing how many lives she has touched."
While the move to North Carolina is hard for those she''s worked with to accept, it''s bittersweet for Chudy, too. With emotion, she spoke of wonderful friends and the impressive young women she''s had the chance to meet.
"We''re so lucky to have been here five years," she said with feeling. "I''m leaving it (the program) very confidently," she said. "There are several talented people to step up and take care of it. Junior Miss is important for scholarships, yes, but it goes far beyond that -- it gives these girls the opportunity to learn so much more about themselves."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.