A few months ago, Maria mentioned over dinner that she had to attend a leadership conference for a couple of hours during the upcoming weekend. Jon and I asked who the sponsor was of the conference, and how she got invited. She informed us that she had been chosen by her high school to ￼ participate in the program, and thereby be eligible for a scholarship. Neither I not Jon had heard of the organization before but trusted it was valid since the school nominated her.
Maria returned home from the event that Saturday, and told us nonchalantly that it went well. She said she got to meet some other senior girls and enjoyed talking to a couple of them:) She also informed us that she did not believe that she would receive any scholarship because the other girls she met had done things ranging from creating their own business to already attending pilot school at the age of 17. ￼￼￼ We responded that we thought she was awesome and that was all that mattered, and we all went about our business.
A few weeks after the weekend event, she told Jon and I that we had to attend a banquet with her to honor the 12 girls from Central Ohio who had been selected for the scholarship. The banquet was this past Sunday. We all got dressed up (an easy task for Maria but not for me and Jon!), and hit the road to a country club up north. We were greeted by two women at a table who asked for Maria’s name. They gave us name tags and we situated ourselves at a round table near the podium. Jon and I proceeded to get some finger foods while Maria held court at the table talking to one of the Zonta leaders. She was so worried about me and John acting appropriately. When we arrived back with her finger food, she immediately gave me a napkin. Assuming I will get the food all over me.
Ten of the twelve girls made it to the event with their parents or guardians. Each girl got a few minutes to go to the podium and make remarks after being introduced by a Zonta Representative. Zonta International is an organization promoting women in several areas of study. For this event, Zonta honored young women who were advancing in the field of public service. At the end of the event, Zonta would offer the Young Women in Public Affairs (YWPA) Award, which recognizes young women for demonstrating leadership skills and commitment to public service and civic causes, and encourages them to continue their participation in public and political life.
￼The first young woman got introduced and spoke about participating in 4H. Another young woman talked about how she believed in providing healthy food for other kids at school and started her own healthy vending machine. Another girl talked about being a sexual abuse survivor and assisting other survivors. ￼ some read from notes, others winged it. When it was her turn, Maria approached the podium. ￼ ￼￼ Neither Jon nor I knew what she would talk about because she wanted it to be a surprise. ￼She spoke about her experience in federal court, and witnessing a young man being detained in front of his children. She talked about how we needed to change our laws and societal norms so that they were not directly and indirectly harming the underprivileged. She dazzled me. Jon gave me a side look of pride.
After all of the girls spoke, the president of the Columbus chapter informed us that they had three awards to give out. First second and third place. Maria made sure that Jon and I understood that she was not going to get an award or if she did, it would be third. They started out with third place – i gave that motherly look to Maria wherein she knew I would be proud of her no matter what. Maria’s name was not called. I started to think about what I could tell her if she did not win an award. Second place place was announced – not her. I continued to think through words of wisdom I could provide her after the event was over. Then, the president announced the first place winner…. Maria Ionno!￼ ￼What the holy heck! Jon had a tear in his eye that Maria immediately noticed, and couldn’t believe. I had tears down my face as I watched her go up to accept her award (she knows me and my crying so it did not affect her).
Our girl has put so much time and effort into service activities. And it is not as though she does it to get credit or to try to win money; rather, she does it because she really believes in the causes and in our duty to support people in her community. This is what makes it all the more incredible. She was just as taken aback as we were when her name was announced. Afterwards, a few Zonta leaders approached me to tell me how impressed they were with Maria. It never surprises me to receive this feedback because she is amazing and kind and smart and genuine. She makes an impact on people as soon as she meets them. It is such a gift.
She got pictures taken with the other girls and grabbed a cookie before we left. As soon as we got in the car, she called the grandparents to relay the good news. They all sang out in joy for her, and got a kick out of Jon’s teary eye.
And now, she is off to represent central Ohio in the national competition. No matter what the result, we know we hit the jackpot ￼with this girl!