On Jan. 19, Atlantic City's St. James AME Church CHOICES after-school program held its first annual volunteer appreciation and awards luncheon to honor members of the local community who exhibited notable commitment to volunteerism.

"(It) was actually an idea that I've had for some time to do a volunteer-appreciation program," said Rhonda Hart, CHOICES after-school program coordinator and president of the church's volunteer board.

This year, Hart's intention materialized, honoring six community volunteers and organizations for their various services relating to the after-school program or to the community as a whole.

Students of the after-school program, as well as an alumnus of the program, helped with the awards.

Atlantic City resident Patricia Young was among the honorees that day. About four years ago, the aerobics instructor was personally requested by Hart to assist with the fitness and nutrition ministries within the church.

After presenting her initial seminar, Young prolonged her services by offering an aerobics class once per week to members of the adult community.

The recognition at the luncheon was neither expected nor necessary, Young said.

"I was pleasantly surprised when (Hart) told me (that I was to be recognized), and I was also honored because like my plaque (read) I do this without wanting recognition," Young, 53, said. "I do it because I enjoy it, and I do it because it helps others."

The luncheon also honored volunteer of the year, Barbara Woodard, for instituting the St. James AME Church CHILL summer reading program, Tom and Donna Watts for their contribution to the St. James AME Church food pantry, Rose Mobley, for her hours devoted directly to the CHOICES after-school program and to Princess Inc., the community mentoring program for young women of the Atlantic City and Pleasantville area.

Princess Inc., founded by Indra Owens, promotes healthy self-esteem and offers support to women ages 13 to 22. Owens, who was joined by co-founder Automne Bennett at the luncheon, felt fortunate to be honoroed as a volunteer that day.

"It was awesome," Owens, 30, said. "It was nice that St. James really took the time to put together a program like that just to recognize the small people, and I'm glad I was a part of it."

The luncheon, held at Kelsey's Restaurant in Atlantic City, also recognized the volunteers who helped conduct workshops on topics such as writing, history and etiquette. Those acknowledged were Raymond Tyler, Herbert Milan and Barbara Green-Harris.

Hart added that she intends to make the luncheon a tradition, knowing that the list of possible volunteers to honor is extensive.

"In the coming years, it will be a more public nomination process," she said.

And Hart recognized the importance of honoring the volunteers year after year.

"The people that volunteer usually don't want recognition and don't want a reward, but their efforts are so meaningful, that I, as well as the members of the board, felt that it was important just to show our appreciation, especially for programs that make a positive difference."

The proceeds from the event will help fund youth activities as well as scholarships for students who have participated in the CHOICES after-school program and the CHILL summer reading program.

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