April 1, 2024

Inside the 25-year legacy of the Silhouettes of Criterion Debutante Ball

7.9 min read| Published On: April 1st, 2024|

By Roxanne Brown

Inside the 25-year legacy of the Silhouettes of Criterion Debutante Ball

7.9 min read| Published On: April 1st, 2024|
2024 Debutantes
Breniya Shaw, Amiyah Copeland, Alana Seward and Ja’Niyah Chambliss

Nurturing Future Leaders

The Silhouettes of Criterion Organization, Inc. stands as a source of empowerment for young women, transcending cultural and social boundaries to shape the leaders of tomorrow. 

Founded in 1988 as an extension of the Criterion Civic Club, this Eustis-based organization has become a vital force in the community, fostering academic excellence, social grace and a commitment to community service.

“Our roots trace back to the Criterion Civic Club, established in the 1950s. It was a group of remarkable African American women who served as educators, entrepreneurs and community leaders,” says Silhouettes of Criterion President Selina Bowers. “In 1988, we evolved into the Silhouettes of Criterion, expanding our reach to younger members.”

Those members participate in events like crafting sessions and engaging discussions about college plans, encouraging the development of bonds between the debutantes. Despite attending different schools, the girls have come together through this shared experience.

This year, the pinnacle of their efforts, the Debutante Ball, celebrated its 25th year. A rite of passage for high school juniors and seniors, the program aims to present young ladies to society while instilling essential life skills. 

“We try to encourage them to develop and increase their socialization in the community, have social graces, engage in structured leadership and positive educational workshops,” says Selina, explaining that their mentorship, coming from accomplished, successful, experienced women in business and in life, instills confidence in participants at a crucial stage in their lives. “It goes back to trying to rebuild young ladies. They get caught up in the image of society and we need to let them know that it doesn’t matter what everybody else is looking at, that you need to love yourself because you’re beautiful no matter what.”

The ball was held February 3 and featured four outstanding debutantes: Eustis High School’s Alana Seward and Ja’Niyah Chambliss, Mount Dora High School’s A’Miyah Copeland and Tavares High School’s Breniya Shaw. Each debutante received an instant scholarship on the night of the ball, with an additional opportunity to apply for more scholarship funds provided by the organization. 

“Overall, the girls are so energetic. A lot of them are student-athletes but still very much into their educations, so they’re very good at keeping their GPAs up and very good at time management,” Selina adds. “Still, witnessing their personal growth each year is truly inspiring.”

Cheryl Myers, one of the organization’s two charter members, has a personal connection to the organization. As a young lady, Cheryl was a debutante and her mother, a Criterion.

“Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I saw the Criterion Civic Club as a beacon of strength,” Cheryl says. “When the Silhouettes emerged, it was an opportunity to carry on the legacy and empower the next generation.”

The heart of the Silhouettes lies in their mentorship program, known as the Classic Collection. 

“We mentor girls from 6th to 12th grade, guiding them through workshops on financial wellness, interview skills, etiquette, public speaking, self-awareness and self-esteem,” Cheryl explains. “Our aim is to equip them with knowledge not always taught in traditional education.”

Silhouettes of Criterion
Tamika Rolle, Linda Bonds, Nicole Rolle, Glenda Jackson, Shikita Hill, Saundra Myrie, Denise Gould, Gessner Harris, Cathia Posey, Selina Bowers, Sandra Wilson, Daena Woods and Cheryl Myers
Criterion Civic Club
Carla Mitchel, Joy Harris, Jaqueline Lucas and President Georgette Ward
2023 Miss Debutante Winner Amaria Brown
2024 Miss Debutante Winner Ja’Niyah Chambliss
Photo provided by Angela Harris

The Debutante Program, an eight- to nine-month journey, intertwines these girls’ lives with invaluable workshops. 

“We cover a spectrum of topics that have to do with preparing these young women for the complexities of the world,” Cheryl says. 

Acknowledging the challenges faced by some girls, Cheryl highlighted the importance of community service and giving back. 

As part of the program, the girls actively engage in scholarship fundraising. Each debutante receives a percentage of the funds raised, which, in total for 2024, stands at nearly $38,000.

At the ball, which is reminiscent of a Quinceañera or Sweet Sixteen, each girl is introduced and celebrated by attendees as they walk out with their parents or guardians, their escorts and the junior debutantes. The girl who raises the most money, some of which is used for community scholarships and other efforts, is then crowned Queen of the Cotillion.

Cheryl says she’s proud that she and other members of the Silhouettes have had a hand in empowering over 160 young ladies through the years. 

From a debutante perspective, the experience is a great one, says Ja’Niyah Chambliss, a senior debutante with an enthusiastic spirit.

She has been part of the Criterion club since middle school — and her journey has been transformative. Over the years, Ja’Niyah actively engaged in the Classic Collection, participating in a variety of activities such as bowling, skating and singing. These events not only provided fun but also fostered connections with girls across Lake County, creating a sense of community. 

Ja’Niyah was crowned Queen of the Cotillion at the ball.

“I feel like every high school should have something like this,” Ja’Niyah says. “I’m really thankful for the program because it’s such a big eye-opener.”

In particular, Ja’Niyah says she’s appreciative of the workshops conducted by the Silhouettes of Criterion. Among these, public speaking, financial literacy, and advocacy were particularly impactful, she says. Public speaking and financial literacy workshops equipped her with essential skills for future endeavors, such as college life. 

Ja’Niyah’s aunt Sable Biggs, having experienced the program firsthand as a teen and now being on the other side as a parent, commended the Silhouettes of Criterion for their enduring impact on the community.  

A vibrant debutante and this year’s Miss Congeniality, Alana Seward says she, too, has developed a deep connection with the organization. She has been an active member for three years, engaging in various classes that foster personal growth, self-discovery and the transition into womanhood. Alana says she particularly appreciates the camaraderie among the teenage girls in the Classic Collection, where she learned valuable life skills and made lasting connections.

“Don’t be afraid to sign up or go to an event and be part of the club because you can learn so many new things, find new friendships, and have supportive adults teach you the ways of life,” Alana advises. “Even when you feel uncomfortable, they make you feel comfortable. It’s really fun.”

Alana attributes her positive transformation to the club. She speaks fondly of the supportive environment that encourages networking, communication skills and overall personal development. 

Miss Debutante 2024 Queen of the Cotillion Ja’Niyah Chambliss
Photos provided by Angela Harris

Alana, a senior who started her Criterion journey as a sophomore, is set to receive a scholarship for college. Her enthusiasm for the future is contagious, and she credits the Criterion club for contributing to her personal and academic achievements.

Alana’s mother, Vanessa Seward, says she was proud of her daughter’s involvement with the club and acknowledges the positive impact it’s had in keeping Alana on a path of positivity and personal growth.

A newer debutante, Breniya Shaw has been an active participant in the Silhouettes of Criterion program since August. Under the guidance of the program, the Tavares High School senior has engaged in various workshops that focus on essential life skills such as managing money and etiquette, preparing her for the challenges of college and beyond. 

“It’s been a good experience. I’ve learned how to communicate more with other girls, make new bonds and gained valuable life skills,” Breniya says. 

Breniya’s mother Brianna notes that the program has enriched her daughter’s life. She observes positive changes in Breniya’s ability to connect with girls from different schools, fostering relationships that extend beyond their usual social circles.

Breniya expresses that the most significant takeaway from the program is the realization that she can achieve anything she sets her mind to. This empowering message reflects the program’s positive impact on building confidence and a sense of capability among its participants.

Like Breniya, A’Miyah Copeland is also a newer participant

“I’ve been a part of it for a good seven months now. We have workshops, meetings and even events that we attend every year. It’s a way to keep you on track and remember your path and the things you want to do in life,” she says. “One time that stood out to me was when we had a tea party and all got together. The Silhouettes gave us a big speech about school and life, and it was really impactful. It helps me meet other girls from different schools, and the workshops are beneficial, teaching us things we need in our lives.”

A’Miyah’s godmother says she recognizes the importance of such initiatives in shaping the future leaders of the community. And that’s the goal. 

Selina explains that the organization’s mission statement is, ‘Women striving to make a difference.’

“Our goals are always trying to do good work on behalf of humanity. We try to build a sisterly bond. And we try to remember always that there is a firm and continuous obligation to the world that we try to do better. We believe in helping the community and we hold firm to the realization that it’s through serving mankind that God is there,” Selina says. “I’m also a true believer in all women, only because I think that we should build each other up instead of bringing each other down.”

“And if you have a strong circle that’s supporting you, encouraging you and motivating you, there’s nothing but great things ahead for you.” 

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About the Author: Roxanne Brown

Originally from Nogales, Arizona, Roxanne worked in the customer service industry while writing independently for years. After moving to Florida in 1999, Roxanne eventually switched her career path to focus more on writing and went on to become an award-winning reporter for The Daily Commercial/South Lake Press newspapers for 16 years prior to coming on board with Akers Media as a staff writer in July 2020 – her dream job come true.

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