UPDATE: Grant Elementary School, Middleton win diversity awards

Thursday, January 16, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. CST; updated 11:51 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 16, 2014
Columbia residents gathered for the 21st annual Columbia Values Diversity breakfast Thursday morning. Grant Elementary School and Julie Middleton were among the diversity award recipients.

 COLUMBIA — Grant Elementary and Julie Middleton, director of organizational development at the MU Extension, were honored with group and individual awards, respectively, at the 21st annual Columbia Values Diversity breakfast.

The theme of this year's event, the "Rich Tapestry of Diversity," paid tribute to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Nearly 900 people attended the celebration, said JJ Musgrove, director of the City of Columbia Office of Cultural Affairs.

The event, held at the Holiday Inn Executive Center, provided breakfast to attendees and included live music, a performance by Missouri Contemporary Ballet and the 17th annual Diversity Awards. Steve Pemberton was the keynote speaker.

"It's a lot bigger, and a lot more people have taken interest in the promotion of diversity," said Carl Lewis, who last attended the celebration eight years ago. "It's changed a lot, and I'm kind of wide-eyed taking it in."

Middleton: Sharing a history and collaborating with others

Middleton earned a diversity award for her service with many local organizations and her contributions as co-director and co-producer to "Battle: Change from Within," a documentary produced through the extension.

The documentary, which debuted at MU on Feb. 25, 2012, highlighted Eliot Battle, who became the first black employee at Hickman High School in 1960 and worked for racial equality in Columbia.

"Learning of Battle's stories and everything he had to give this community, I was just so delighted to be able to share that with the community," Middleton said.

Michael Ouart, director of the MU Extension, nominated Middleton for the honor.

"It means the world to me," she said. "You can do so much more as a team than you can as an individual, and I've always believed in working that way."

Grant Elementary: encouraging acceptance among diverse students

Several representatives from Grant Elementary accepted its award on behalf of the school Thursday morning.

"I can't wait to get back to school and share the good news with the students," Principal Jennifer Wingert said.

Grant Elementary's student body represents 27 countries and offers several programs to help international students adjust and to teach the value of diversity.

For children who are having difficulty understanding curriculum because of communication barriers, there is an English Language Learners program. Other students are encouraged to join five available language clubs. Kids get to share an aspect of their individual upbringing in a weekly did-you-know session.

There is a multicultural focus, Wingert said. The school may be small but students come from many different countries and a wide variety of backgrounds.

"I love that we have a system of support to enable kids to reach out for the resources that are there — with that, you really can overcome anything," school counselor Lena Sheets said.

Anticipated speaker

Musgrove's search for the celebration's keynote speaker was a long and rigorous ordeal, but when he came across Pemberton he knew he had found the one, he said.

"I knew if we could get him on stage that he would make an impact to our community in a way that we haven't had a speaker do before," Musgrove said.

Pemberton's background growing up in a foster care system with a mixed-racial background fostered his desire to connect people not by their appearance but by their thoughts, actions and varieties of backgrounds.

At a young age, Pemberton's differences were brought to his attention. He said foster care services had difficulty placing him because they "weren't sure if he belonged to a white or black family," he said.

"They were so concerned with what I was that they forgot who I was," he said.

Pemberton's message encouraged embracing people beyond outside appearances, dress and attitudes. He said regardless of background or ethnicity, "people don't look like their stories."

Sheets, as an educator and advocate for children, applauded Pemberton's presentation.

"Showing a story of someone who actually overcame adversity really encourages kids," she said.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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