Seventeen-year-old La-Marcus Smith-Kelley felt much appreciated Saturday.
The Lake Norman Charter High School student was among high-achieving seniors from across Mecklenburg County honored by the YBM Leadership Alliance and selected for inclusion in the Top 100 Young Black Men of Charlotte publication.
For the third year, the nonprofit that focuses on leadership development and college preparation recognized a group of high school seniors not only for academic achievement, but also for their leadership abilities and community service.
“It feels great to be recognized for your accomplishments and not something negative,” Smith-Kelley said shortly before the ceremony at Rocky River High School. “I’m absolutely honored.”
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He plans to major in business and psychology at the University of Southern California and hopes to open his own business someday.
“I want to make sure I do better than those around me,” Smith-Kelley said. “If I can’t be perfect, I want to be as close as possible.”
Alliance founder and CEO John Martin, called the ceremony a “great celebration.”
“There’s so much negative information about young black men,” he said. “This celebrates the positive stuff. It inspires them to go forward.”
Seniors are nominated by teachers, principals, guidance counters and the community at large. A panel of judges makes the selection.
“It’s a diverse group that cuts across all socioeconomic barriers,” Martin said.
Copies of the top 100 leaders publication are sent to high schools, businesses and distributed throughout communities.
By turning the spotlight on the seniors, “we’re trying to build men of character,” Martin said.
Saturday’s keynote speaker was Garinger High world history teacher James Ford, who was named N.C. Teacher of the Year in April.
He urged the seniors to “strive for greatness” and “be more than you ever imagined you can be.”
Garinger senior Wynston Saamoi, 17, felt proud to be a member of the top 100.
Before the ceremony, he recalled coming to Charlotte from the West African country of Liberia at age 8. Starting fourth grade was a challenge, but “challenges helped build me,” said Saamoi, who called the YBM alliance “a great extended family.”
Massachusetts Institute of Technology sophomore Marshall Craft, 19, came to see his younger brother, Matthew Craft, honored.
In 2012, Marshall Craft was among the first group of seniors recognized for excellence by the nonprofit.
When he interviewed at MIT, the honor “definitely helped me,” said Craft. “It made me stand out. The interviewer was very impressed.”
Craft’s father, Mike, said he “couldn’t be prouder” of having two sons recognized by the alliance
“We really love this program,” said Craft, who turned 50 Saturday. “Today is a great day for the family What a great birthday present.”