Actress and Mississippi native Sela Ward championed the plight of abused and neglected children in her home state with an impassioned plea for ordinary Mississippians to become involved in transforming lives of the most vulnerable citizens from a state of despair to one of success.

"These children have no voice," said Ward, founder of Hope Village in the Meridian area which also serves children in areas of Northwest Mississippi. "I want to be their voice."

Ward was named as the 2018 Crystal Ball "Star of Hope" which recognizes outstanding individuals who have made a lasting impact upon people in their communities through charitable actions. "It takes a lot more than feeling empathy. You have to get in the trenches. We all have to roll our sleeves up and get dirty."

The event, which benefits the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, was the most heavily attended in the 18 years that the Crystal ball has been staged, with more than 1,100 tickets being sold, according to Community Foundation President and CEO Tom Pittman.

Ward, who received a standing ovation, most definitely had the ear of the overflow crowd.

Ward said across the state and nationally, there is a lack of awareness as to what happens to children who are either abandoned by families or find themselves as basically wards of the state if a parent is arrested or placed in drug or alcohol treatment.

She asked for a show of hands of people in the record-breaking Crystal Ball audience who would be willing to take in homeless or abandoned children.

A sprinkling of hands shot up from across the cavernous ballroom inside the Southaven Arena.

Ward said in Mississippi there is a shortage of Department of Human Services case workers as well as a lack of funds for mental health and other agencies which interact with the state's homeless children.

"We have to elect legislators who care," added Ward of the individuals who hold the purse strings to funding the state's foster care programs and mental health treatment facilities.

Ward encouraged Mississippians to take action.

"Mississippi is one of the most giving and philanthropic cultures in our country," Ward said, lauding the penchant of people from the Magnolia State in helping out the disadvantaged and downtrodden.

"I'm a daughter of Mississippi," Ward said. "I was born and raised here. I left to experience a bigger world, a broader experience. If you look back on your life and can connect the dots, you will see a theme."

For Ward, the theme of her life's experience is a desire to give back to her home state.

"It's my hope," Ward said. "It's my heart."

Others honored included Fairway Independent Mortgage which was presented with the "Business of the Year" designation.

"We believe in serving people and their community," said Cindy Gordon, who received the award on behalf of the company and staff. Gordon and her staff was involved with renovating the former Hernando City Hall as the new home for the DeSoto Arts Council in addition to sponsoring the Hernando Veterans Parade. Gordon and crew also raised money for the new Hernando Dog Park. "We live in a wonderful community."

Josephine Rhymes accepted the award for the "Nonprofit of the Year," on behalf of the Tri-County Workforce Alliance in Clarksdale.

Among the accomplishments of the nonprofit is preparing young people to be successful in life.

A staggering 98 percent of the youth assisted by the nonprofit would go on to attend college.

"You have to get them ready for life," Rhymes said.

Lynda Austin of Walls was named as the "Margaret Maddox Woman of the Year," for her trailblazing role as a public servant and early supporter of the Maddox Foundation and Community Foundation.

"I loved helping people," Austin said. "I like to help people," added Austin, who was elected as the first woman Mayor of Walls. One of her first acts as mayor was to hire the first-ever African-American city clerk in DeSoto County. "They called us trailblazers."

Jaby Denton of the Mississippi Delta community of Marks and Quitman County, was named as the "Dan Maddox Man of the Year."

Denton was instrumental with the Marks Project and helping to establish "The Village" in Marks, a place of learning and culture aimed at improving the lives of young people in the Delta region.

"When you see the need, you will get involved," Denton said. "If you care and love the Delta, you can't be a spectator."

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.

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