William Davies Middle School sixth-grader Alexis Cirigliano, one of 63 invitees to the eighth annual Ladies' Tea at the school in Mays Landing, was initially unsure whether she wanted to attend the March 22 ceremony.
By her own admission, she's not into the ladylike things - dresses, tea and etiquette - that typify the event, which brings young ladies from the school together with professional women from the community.
A short time into the event, though, Alexis knew she had made a good decision.
"I'm really glad I came, because I got to meet really inspiring people, and now I know I can go out and do what I want to do," the 12-year-old said.
The program was started in 2006 by a group of teachers at the school as a way to celebrate Women's History Month and inspire the young ladies of the school as they transition to adolescence.
This year's Ladies' Tea was centered around a theme of "Every great dream begins with a dreamer," which is a quote attributed to Harriet Tubman, and it was dedicated to the memory of former sixth-grade language arts teacher Patricia Ann Stard, who died over the summer.
The girls, who dressed up for the event, were seated at tables in the school's library and served tea and snacks. Eminent women from the community, among them police and military officers, teachers and small business owners, sat among the girls.
Alexis and classmates Ciaralyn Figueroa, Shonell Edwards and Jennie Chalakee were seated with Army Capt. Antonia Edwards, a public affairs officer based out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
Edwards, who had previously visited the school for a career day, said at first her interaction with the students was a little awkward, but, as the students relaxed, the group had a great time. After the event, the girls at Edwards' table even asked to have their picture taken with her.
For the Army captain who often speaks before large, groups, the intimacy and enthusiasm of the girls at the Ladies' Tea offered a refreshing change.
"I've never done anything like this where it was so relaxed, and I like the whole tea party etiquette, get treated like a lady," Edwards said. "That was fun."
After a little more than an hour of snacks and conversation, the girls were given a presentation by special guest Lindsey Petrosh, the reigning Miss New Jersey.
Petrosh discussed with the girls the importance of following their dreams. She told them to set achievable goals, be persistent and to embrace every opportunity to better themselves.
Petrosh used her experiences - and failures - on the pageant circuit before she was crowned Miss New Jersey to illustrate to the girls the value of remaining on their chosen path despite hardship.
Alexis, who hopes to be a professional basketball player - or a pediatrician, should that lofty goal prove out of reach - said the lessons she learned from Petrosh will stick with her for a long time.
"I thought it was really inspiring," Alicia said. "It makes me want to go out and do everything I dreamed of since I was little."
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