"What I enjoy [the most] is the growth that it really pushes you to have," said Gilbert, the daughter of Dr. Tom and Regina Gilbert of Cartersville. "There's so many things -- you have to talk to donors, you have to find sponsors for it, you have to prepare for a scholarship, you have to work on your grades.
"You have to make yourself become a Distinguished Young Woman. And whether you've won the title or not, just competing in the local program, you have to push yourself to become your own Distinguished Young Woman and that is one of the great things about it. It really does give me goals to set for myself and that's what I love about it."
During the local competition -- formerly called Bartow County Junior Miss -- Saturday, 11 high school juniors vied for $4,900 in scholarships, showcasing their talents in the areas of academics, talent, fitness, interview and self-expression. Along with Gilbert, the participants included Amanda Haney, daughter of Jerry and Kim Haney, Excel Christian Academy; Erica Garland, daughter of Joel and Donna Garland, Excel Christian Academy; Claire Woods, daughter of Bill and Tracy Woods, Cartersville High School; Sara Whitener, daughter of Jackie Whitener and Linda Whitener, Woodland High School; McAllie Givens, daughter of Darrell Givens and Pam Givens, Cartersville High School; Johannah Nunez, daughter of Omar and Kristi Nunez, Woodland High School; Bonnie Rowland, daughter of Lori Pruitt, Darlington School; Heather Miller, daughter of Nancy Miller, Cartersville High School; Loren Kirkland, daughter of Dennis and Christie Graham and Todd Kirkland, Woodland High School; and Sarah Keefe, daughter of Doug and Krista Keefe, Excel Christian Academy.
"It's still just a very unreal feeling," Gilbert said. "When they called my name, it was really a shock and ... I am still on a high. I know when people ask me about it or maybe I tell them about it, it hasn't died down yet. I am very excited. ... It was a wonderful experience meeting the girls, working with them.
"I think this year was a very, very competitive year. All of the girls were so talented. They were so well-spoken. I am really honored to be winning the title itself, but especially this year just because it really was an honor to compete with those other girls. So I'm very blessed to have received the title of Bartow's Distinguished Young Woman, and I encourage any and all girls to participate whenever they can."
In this year's program, Gilbert won a total of $1,900 in cash scholarships and the chance to compete at the state contest in Marietta July 30. Along with the title, Gilbert also received preliminary awards in the fitness, self-expression and talent categories. For the talent segment, Gilbert showcased her vocal skills, singing "Breathe" from the musical "In the Heights." While she still is undecided about where she will be attending college, she does plan to pursue a musical theater major.
"I think she will do very, very well at state," said Myra Hufstetler, chairman for the local scholarship program. "I think we could bring home another Distinguished Young Woman of Georgia. I think she's going to do really well. So I'm excited about that.
"Mary-Clayton has a lot of confidence and that shows in everything she does. She is very well-rounded. She took a fitness award and a self-expression award and a talent award. She is also very involved in 4-H. Because I'm involved with that as a volunteer as well, [I know] they are involved with a lot of interviews in that program so I'm sure she did very well in her interview as well. ... You need to have all the qualities to be able to win and that's what she has."
An 11th-grade homeschooled student, Gilbert maintains a 4.0 GPA and is involved in numerous activities. Some of her current and past achievements include: 4-H State Board officer, 4-H Northwest District president, Honor Roll at Living Science, 4-H Master Consumer Judging, first place in Georgia 4-H Project Achievement PA-Vocal and ambassador for 4-H Health Rocks.
Her performing arts experience includes being an ensemble singer in "The Sound of Music" at The Fox Theatre, attending Interlochen Arts Camp Musical Theatre Workshop; capturing lead roles in The Grand Theatre's "Footloose" and Christian Youth Theatre's "Camp Rock;" and being selected for American Ballet Theatre Intensive, Allstate Chorus, Steps of Faith's Advanced Company, and an assistant director and choreographer for The Grand Theatre's camps.
Joining Gilbert in the top three positions at the Distinguished Young Women of Bartow County program were first honoree Loren Kirkland and second honoree Bonnie Rowland.
"I think the girls really bonded," Hufstetler said about all the contestants. "I believe that they will stay friends with all the girls from all the schools for some time to come. So I'm glad they gained that.
"I think they [also] gained a lot of confidence in themselves and just realizing they can do something. [For] a lot of these girls this was totally out of the box for them, and I think they realize they can do things. They can take risks and meet the challenge. We had a lot of girls get different awards. I hope that they all feel good about themselves and feel good about what they accomplished because I was very proud of them."