ANNAPOLIS — Twenty-four students representing Westminster's East and West middleschools received accolades from the governor Friday for raising money to buy Christmas gifts for 16 North Carolina children whose parentsperished in a chicken plant fire.
The "salute to excellence" award bestowed to the City of Westminster at a State House reception commended the 1,800 Carroll middle school students for their "compassion and generosity" and "wonderful outpouring of love."
"You've taught about striving to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer, reading from the award.
The students coordinated a campaign to raise about $5,000 and selected presents last fall for the children, ranging in age from 5 to 18, whose parents were killed in the Imperial poultry processing plant disaster Sept. 3 in Hamlet, N.C.
The students raised about three times more money than Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown had expected, said the mayor, who pitched the idea to the schools and joined the representatives at the proclamation.
"I haven't had a prouder moment as mayor, standing next to the greatest governor in the country and recognizing 24 of Westminster's finest youngpeople," said Brown.
Brown contacted Hamlet's mayor last fall anddiscovered that the small city was providing for the orphaned children's physical needs, such as food and shelter, but that the emotionaltrauma had left a "raw wound." Brown turned to the middle school students, counting on them to communicate with the Hamlet families and know what was "in and radical."
"It's like the governor said, if wewere in their shoes, we'd want someone to help us," said East Middleeighth-grader Matt Joiner, 13.
Netia Little, 13, a West Middle eighth-grader who attended the reception, said she and three colleagueswrote to the mother of a 16-year-old boy who had lost his father so they could surprise the youth with gifts he wanted. Their $300 surprise included Reebok athletic shoes, a basketball, tapes, T-shirts and jeans, she said.
Brown loaded a truck to the brim and delivered the presents in December.
The students said they felt proud to be honored by the state's highest official.
"It made us feel like we did something good for someone else," said Dominic Vonella, 14, an eighth-grader at East Middle.
Classmate Laurel Monroe, 13, described the experience simply as "awe-inspiring."
The Westminster students were in the select company of champions and other philanthropists at the reception. Also honored for excellence were a U.S. Boxing Association junior middleweight champion and his trainer,both from Baltimore; United Way workers; an Anne Arundel judge who is suffering from multiple sclerosis and is raising money to battle the disease; and several junior beauty pageant queens.
The governor described the event as a celebration of "people helping people."
"You can be absolutely on the floor, dead, unhappy as all get out, then you leave feeling good for what people have done for each other," he said.