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A hearty ‘welcome home’ for All-America City delegates

Posted: June 28, 2018 4:25 p.m.
Updated: June 29, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Johnny Deal/Bowtie Photography

IN DEVNER: South Carolina mayors in Denver include (from left) Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, Camden Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford, Elgin Mayor Melissa Emmons, and Mt. Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie.

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Laurey Carpenter stepped off the bus, faced a crowd of welcoming people and jumped up and down while holding the county’s 2018 All-America City award above her head.

Carpenter, executive director of the PLAY Foundation that headed the more than three-year effort to win the award, and most of her fellow All-America City delegates arrived at the Kershaw County Government Center around 6:30 p.m. Monday. They had won one of the National Civic League’s 10 All-America City 2018 awards about 24 hours earlier in Denver, Colo., along with one of only two Youth Leadership Awards, for delegation member Clinton Washington, and the only Social Media award from the league.

The crowd, made up of dozens of family members, friends, colleagues, elected officials and others lined one side of Broad Street next to the government center as the bus arrived with a police escort, passing under a huge 20 foot by 30 foot American flag hung from the extended ladder of a Camden Fire Department truck. The delegation left Denver that morning by airplane, landed at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and then got on the bus to ride down I-77 to I-20 and back home to Camden.

After at least 15 minutes of hugging, cheering and laughing, Jaelen Bussey, the Jackson Teen Center and Boys & Girls Club of the Midland’s Youth of the Year -- at Kershaw County Council Chairman Julian Burns’ urging -- called out, “When I say Kershaw, you say County. Kershaw!” “County!” the crowd shouted back. “Kershaw!” “County!” Another time and then, Jaelen finished off with something of a war cry, joined by the crowd and his fellow delegates.

Having the crowd’s attention, Burns, who had flown back to Kershaw County ahead of the rest of the delegation due to business meetings, welcomed Carpenter and the delegation back home and then asked her to come up and speak.

“This started three and a half years ago. I said we were the best place to live in America, now we’ve proved it,” Carpenter declared. “I want to give you the feedback that we got from 12 live panelists from all over the nation. No. 1, the very first thing they said, was that we were the only delegation that had non-profit, local elected officials, county elected officials and a state elected official and showed the equity all the way from ground zero to the state house.”

Carpenter said Kershaw County’s win couldn’t have come without the help of a lot of people, including delegate Johnny Deal, of KershawHealth, who helped the county win the 2018 Social Media award.

“They took two things that Johnny does every single day in our community and said that they couldn’t believe it. In one weekend, we reached more than 50,000 people on our social media,” said Carpenter, who had Deal come up to speak as well.

He started off by expressing his and the rest of the delegation’s excitement at being brought into Camden with a police escort.

“I did what I do all the time,” Deal said of his efforts. “I kidded them up there (in Denver) that people love me for my friends, my followers and my life. But, it is a great day in Kershaw County.”

One of the more touching moments came when Clinton -- a 2018 Lugoff-Elgin High School graduate -- called for his mother, Elease, to join him when he was asked to talk about his Youth Leadership award and the experience in Denver.

“Without her, I really wouldn’t be the man I am today,” Clinton said. “And, honestly, I wouldn’t be the man I am today if without the rest of the community as well. I told everyone, all the awards we got today, they’re great to have, but they won’t mean anything unless we live up to them when we come back to our county. While we were there in Colorado, I made sure that I told the judges that Kershaw County -- we are an excellent community and just because we are in a smaller area compared to the rest of the cities we competed with, that doesn’t mean we can’t do excellent things as well.

“As we progress forward, do not doubt anything that this county can do. We have the greatest ability to do the most we can just like any other city in America. I just want you all to realize that none of this would have been possible without you or any of the others who have participated over the years that we’ve been here as the oldest inland city and the best county in South Carolina.”

Clinton, who was nominated by his fellow delegates for the award, was one of only five finalists from among the nearly 20 finalist cities at Sunday night’s ceremony. He and Aileen Martinez, of El Paso, Texas, were named as co-winners for their superior engagement and leadership in their communities.

All-America City delegate and Community Medical Clinic CEO Susan Witkowski, who admitted she was tired and joyfully teary, said helping the county win one of the 10 All-America City Awards was “easy.”

“It was really very easy because all the 33 of us did when we went to Denver was to advocate what you do every single day,” Witkoski said, sweeping a finger across the crowd. “People now recognize us for the innovative, small town, great things and great place and how wonderful we are.”

She thanked those members who participated in the skit the delegation used as its presentation to the judges on Sunday morning. Witkowski noted that the group started working in April on something that lasted only 10 minutes and went on to thank specific members of the delegation.

“But, I have to tell you, I don’t care what they say about millennials, these kids, these students, these youth that we had, they stinkin’ rocked!” Witkowski said.

Other speakers from the delegation included Elgin Mayor Melissa Emmons, State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk, Jackson Teen Center Executive Director Brian Mayes, and Camden City Planner Shawn Putnam on behalf of Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford.

“We went to the national level and we told our story. That was the easy part,” Emmons said, noting that Kershaw County competed with the likes of Las Vegas, Nev.

Carpenter later said that while Las Vegas, like Kershaw County, won an All-America City award this year, it had competed more than 20 times before finally winning this year.

“Kershaw County? We did the application, this was our first time, and what do we do? We bring home three awards!” Carpenter said.

Funderburk called the experience “amazing with amazing people” and that delegates felt their fellow citizens’ support in Denver. Putnam said he, the mayor, Main Street Program Manager Kat Spadacenta and Grant Writer Amy Eudy were honored and privileged to represent Camden as part of the county. Mayes said going to Denver with the people who made up the delegation was the “greatest time in the world” and praised the youth who were part of the group.

Kershaw County Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr., who was also part of the delegation, spoke at the end of the celebration, saying he and the others never felt so welcomed back home in their lives. He also said the workshops offered by the National Civic League allowed the delegation to bring back some good information “that we can use to move this county forward.”

Tucker also invited the public to return to the government center on Tuesday at 4 p.m. for a reception with the delegation. He then jokingly invited them to stay after that for Tuesday evening’s county council meeting, the highlight of which would be third and final reading of the county’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019.

Burns had Jaelen end the festivities the way he had opened them.

“When I say Kershaw, you say County. Kershaw!”

“County!”

“Kershaw!”

“County!”

“Kershaw!”

“County!

“Kershaw!”

“County!

“Yeaaaaaaaaaahhhh!”

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