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Youngest competitor takes home biggest prize

Ava Gilreath's parents were surprised when their 11-year-old daughter beat out the much older high school kids Oct. 12 to take home first prize in this year's Hear My Voice Teen Idol competition.

Her mom, Staci Gilreath, teared-up when the show's host, Miss Teen Maryland Mariela Pepin, announced her daughter's name.

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"We just feel blessed and elated," Staci Gilreath said.

Ava was excited as she held her $300 award in hand after the show at the Columbia downtown waterfront ,where the event was held. She said she is either going to put that money toward her college fund or give it to charity.

She may have been one of the youngest performers, but she is not new to performing.

"I know it sounds cliche but, I have been singing for as long as I can remember," said Ava a sixth grader at Wilde Lake Middle School.

Ava was the last singer to perform at the competition, which included 10 final contestants ages 11 to 18.

This was the 12th annual Hear My Voice Teen Idol competition, an American Idol-style singing competition sponsored by the Columbia Association's Youth and Teen Center. Contestants had to go through three rounds of auditions to get on the stage Sunday.

Each year the Teen Advisory Board chooses a theme for the competition and this year it was Youth Rock, Let's Change the World. Ava sang "Wings." by Little Mix, a song about female empowerment.

Ava said the song choice just came to her after flipping through YouTube channels.

Ava's parents said their daughter doesn't get nervous before going on stage, but Ava said that was not the case this time around.

"It was very nerve-wracking for me," Ava said. "I was very, very nervous because there was a lot of good singers out there and they are older than me so I thought they would do so much better than me."

Other winners included Zach Seals, second place; Emily Smith, third place; and People's Choice award winner Allia Mostafa. The crowd was able to vote for the people's choice award for their favorite act after the competition was over.

Seals took home $100 and Smith took home $50. Mostafa won a prize package from Lord & Taylor, who was sponsoring the event along with the Mall in Columbia.

Although not everyone took home a cash prize, Rene Buckman, director of the Columbia Youth and Teen Center, said everyone who participated in the competition "is a winner," and each contestant walked away with a participation certificate.

As part of the competition, the finalists had to complete a community service requirement. They each created collection boxes that are placed around Columbia for the Teen and Youth Center's clothing drive. All of the contributions collected will be given to those in need across Howard County.

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The community service requirement and the singing stays the same each year, but Buckman said they try to make each year's competition a little better than the last.

"It's overwhelming and gratifying because each year we need to step up our game and do something different," Buckman said. "We need to keep making it better."

This year they added a house band from the Columbia School of Rock to accompany the contestants and invited Miss Teen Maryland, Mariela Pepin to host the event.

Pepin said she was happy to lend her support for the competition.

"I am here and supporting the cause and letting these kids know that it takes guts to do something like this," Pepin said.

Buckman, who has been working with the Teen and Youth Center and the Columbia Association for more than 25 years, said events like this one make her feel like she is making a difference.

"Working with kids has been a passion of mine since college and when I see them up there, doing their thing, that just makes me feel good," Buckman said. "It makes me feel like we are making an impact."

Gillian Morley is a University of Maryland graduate student.

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