Matt Luke and Ricky Hood

Ole Miss football coach Matt Luke, left, talks with Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi Executive Director Ricky Hood talk at the 30th-annual Celebration of Excellence fundraising gala Tuesday at Meridian Community College’s Tommy E. Dulaney Center.

The Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi hosted its 30th-annual Celebration of Excellence fundraising gala Tuesday evening at Meridian Community College’s Tommy E. Dulaney Center.

More than 800 guests were on hand to recognize the accomplishments the youth-based organization has experienced over the last year and honor a number of its youngsters. Local sponsors were acknowledged and thanked for their contributions.

For Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi Executive Director Ricky Hood, the organization is only as strong as its community’s support.

“This is a board-sponsored fundraiser,” Hood said. “Our board of directors go out in the community and solicit funds, and, of course, this community has been tremendous in its support of Boys and Girls Club over the years. That’s what it’s about: raising the money and celebrating and acknowledging those people that support children in the community.”

Hood estimated the Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi and its programs reach nearly 2,000 kids, with about 700 in Meridian and Lauderdale County being impacted each day. The organization has expanded its reach to Kosciusko, Carthage and Walnut Grove.

Robert Bailey, Matt Luke

Robert Bailey talks with Ole Miss head football coach Matt Luke prior to the Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi’s annual gala Tuesday. Luke was the guest speaker at the event.

“We’re seeing, on a daily basis, about 1,100 kids in this organization — Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi,” Hood said. “But this dinner tonight, it’s specifically for Lauderdale County. All the funds raised here, outside of some raised for Philadelphia in Philadelphia, is going toward our clubs here locally.”

Ole Miss football head coach Matt Luke delivered the evening’s keynote address. Although it was his first appearance with the Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi, Luke’s been involved with the organization’s chapters in Oxford and Tupelo. As one of the state’s visible figures, Luke said it’s incumbent on him and others in his position to use their influence for the greater good. 

“Being born and raised in the state of Mississippi, anything that has to do with Mississippi, I’m for,” Luke said. “This is kind of why you get into coaching — it’s to help out young people. I was just talking to Coach Hood earlier just about the good it’s doing. People giving back to the community, that’s what this thing’s all about.”

Luke’s theme for the evening was two-pronged: for the youngsters in attendance, he encouraged them to not let anyone deter them by telling them they can’t live out their dream.

“I’m living mine,” Luke said, as proof that it’s possible. 

For the adults, Luke’s message was one of leadership. 

“I don’t think you can ever forget where you come from,” Luke said. “And I think giving back is a very, very important part. Leadership is influence, and any time you have influence, it’s important that you use that influence for the good of the community.” 

Hood is in his 31st year with the 32-year-old organization. While its mission hasn’t changed, he said the challenges faced by the area’s youngsters have. Through the Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi, they’re offered a positive outlet to successfully navigate those growing challenges. 

“We give them their start,” Hood said. “If they stick with our program, I truly believe we’re saving lives right now. I used to think that was real dramatic — saving lives — but it is now… We’re seeing some of the things now that we used to see in Jackson and other places, but we’re seeing them locally with our young people.”

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