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Couple gets award for volunteer work at Boys & Girls Clubs
Wilheits recognized at club gala
Philip Wilheit, left, talks with Michele Piucci, chairwoman of the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County, and Jim Walters Thursday during the annual Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County Future for Kids Gala at the Gainesville Civic Center. Philip and Mary Hart Wilheit were honored with the Helping Hands Award at the event. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

After the gruesome murder and rape of Alexis Hawks' cousin and best friend last year, the Gainesville High School senior felt she had no other reason to live.

"I felt like a piece of me was gone. So I went to the Boys & Girls Club — the only place where I felt like there was a little sanity of me left," she said.

And that's where the Youth of the Year finalist was able to heal from her loss and became homecoming queen and a captain of the school's cheerleading squad.

But if it weren't for the dedication of volunteers like Philip and Mary Hart Wilheit, Hawks' and other young people may never have experienced such successes.

The couple was honored with the Helping Hands Award Thursday during the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County's ninth annual Future for Kids Gala at the Gainesville Civic Center.

"We are obviously very flattered that the Boys Club & Girls Club would do this," Philip Wilheit said.

The couple have been longtime supporters of the club even before the clubs were a united entity.

Philip Wilheit was a charter member of the original Boys Club in the early 1950s and served as co-chair of the last capital campaign to raise money for improvements to several community facilities.

Similar to her husband, Mary Hart Wilheit was a former chairwoman and board member for the Girls Club and was the head of a capital campaign for the club in the 1990s.

"We involve ourselves in a lot of organizations like that, that are working with the youth. Youth, health care and education are three things that we're very interested in and try to support," Philip Wilheit said.

Gov. Nathan Deal attended the ceremony to honor the Wilheits and discussed the need for volunteers to guide children in the right direction to halt the state's rapidly growing incarceration rate. That rate has created the nation's fourth largest prison population.

With the cost to house a single inmate in a state prison costing taxpayers $18,000 annually, Deal said volunteers play a vital role in preventing youth from leading a life destined for time spent behind bars.

"If you have contributed to (the Boys & Girls Clubs) you have contributed to the process of trying to reverse some of the trends that are going on here at home and all across our state," Deal said.

And volunteers are not the only people Deal reached out to for help in preventing the state's prison population from rising, which if it continues at the current rate will require two additional facilities to be built by 2020, he said.

Youths like Hawks are vital to ensuring their friends and schoolmates also make the right choice and find a path toward success, Deal emphasized.

And Hawks certainly is not the only member to benefit from the club.

As one of the highest ranked basketball players in the country, East Hall High School senior Jasmine Jenkins said she owes much of her success to the Boys & Girls Clubs' commitment to her.

"The Boys & Girls Club teaches us as adolescents to not feel sorry for ourselves, but strive for something more than ourselves and to not make our challenge our excuse," said Jenkins, who is currently top of her class academically and accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Vanderbilt University.

Anybody who has contributed to organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs or even tutors and counselors of children have positively affected the lives of youth, Deal said.

That commitment to children is what Deal believes is crucial to reversing the trend of a growing prison population, which he said is filled with young people who often are high school dropouts and never had a chance at success.

"We live in a day and a time where, unfortunately, the number of unwedded teenage mothers continues to rise. We live in a day and a time in which more and more children are being raised in single-family households," Deal said.

"That is a frightening system that we are seeing continue to develop, so when you serve as a tutor, a counselor, a friend, what you do is you fill a void in the life of a child," he added.