"I was completely shocked," said Gilbert, the 17-year-old daughter of Dr. Tom and Regina Gilbert of Cartersville. "I know that right before they announced my name, my heart was just beating like crazy. I honestly thought it was going to pop out of my chest. But when they called my name, I was just so shocked and so honored and the emotions really got to me and I did start crying a little bit.
"But it was a wonderful feeling. It means the world to me. I'm so honored, and the girls I was competing against were so talented, well-spoken, beautiful young ladies, and I was just so honored to win the title."
During the program -- formerly known as Georgia's Junior Miss -- at the Cobb Civic Center's Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, Gilbert competed in the areas of fitness (15 percent of the overall score), interview (25 percent), scholastics (20 percent), self-expression (15 percent) and talent (25 percent). Along with the overall title, she also received awards in fitness and self-expression, netting her a total of $5,600 in scholarships.
"This year, to be honest, the competition was so incredibly tough. I really couldn't believe it," said Myra Hufstetler, chairman of the Distinguished Young Women of Bartow County program. "There were 30 girls in the competition and all of them are the top in their communities. And it was just very obvious that that's what you had on Saturday night because I just couldn't get over how good all of them were. I've been going to the program now for four years and it was definitely the toughest I had seen as far as just so many really, really good girls. All of us from Bartow really thought that [Mary Clayton] was going to be a contender.
"Of course the whole time we knew she was really good, and she did really well in all of her performances that we're able to see. ... As always, we were really, really proud of her. She's a really hard worker and that showed Saturday night."
In February, Gilbert advanced to the state contest by becoming the first Distinguished Young Woman of Bartow County and won a total of $1,900 in cash scholarships. For the talent segment, Gilbert showcased her vocal skills, singing "Breathe" from the musical "In the Heights," which she repeated at the state competition.
A rising 12th-grade homeschooled student, Gilbert is preparing to partake in the dual enrollment program at Kennesaw State University. 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 and first place in Georgia 4-H Project Achievement PA-Vocal.
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 the lead role in The Grand Theatre's "Footloose," 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.
Along with preparing for the national program in June, Gilbert will be busy during the next year, speaking at Boys & Girls Clubs and attending local Distinguished Young Women competitions in January and February.
"Everything that I've learned over the past few months has been incredible," Gilbert said. "I have worked so hard because I did really want this but I have grown so much just in the past few months. And not only that but the time that I spent with the girls this past week was incredible. I have never been so blessed to be surrounded by such amazing young women who were so sweet and so friendly and so accepting. It was really unreal how nice everyone was. So I had a blast, and it was such an honor to be there."
For more information about the Distinguished Young Women of Bartow County program, visit www.dywbartow.wordpress.com.