TAMPA — Naomi Diaz has become the new "it" girl among her friends.
That's no surprise. How many 13-year-olds can say they went to the White House and got a hug from first lady Michelle Obama?
The honor came by way of a unique afterschool program called Girlstories Leadership Theatre.
Just 3 years old, Girlstories recently earned a place among 15 theater groups nationwide to receive the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from Obama.
More than 400 groups had been considered for the award and its $10,000 grant.
Girlstories is part of Powerstories Theatre, founded in 1998 by Fran Powers. Along with Janice Nepon-Sixt, Powers started Girlstories three years ago. The program partners with existing social service agencies serving mainly at-risk girls 10 to 17 years old. Its workshops use dramatics, storytelling, writing and other activities to help 20 selected girls from the Tampa Bay area to communicate more effectively. They learn to perform and tell their own stories with confidence.
Naomi, who mentors younger girls in the program, was chosen to represent the group during a special ceremony in Washington.
"I was a little bit nervous when I was about to go on stage," Naomi said this week. "But when the first lady hugged me and said hello, I didn't think of anything else."
Powers, who also attended the Oct. 20 ceremony, said the White House experience was "surreal," complete with multiple security checks, celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker and other dignitaries.
"She (Michelle Obama) has a wonderful aura about her; tall and regal and so warm," Powers said. "And during her speech she mentioned our theater and thanked us for what we were doing for the arts. To have her mention Powerstories by name, I lit up like a light bulb."
The honor is a highlight for Powerstories, housed in an office on Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa. Rehearsals are held in an all-purpose room at St. Peter Claver Catholic School in Ybor City, and organizers say the $10,000 is sorely needed. They plan to use the grant money to pay for basic expenses.
This week, the group readied to celebrate its accomplishment at an event was planned for Thursday at the Tampa Bay History Center. The Children's Board of Hillsborough County, the Helios Education Foundation and private donors were to be sponsors.
Aside from the Girlstories program, Powerstories also produces an annual play that travels to Tampa Bay area elementary schools, starting in late summer. This year's play, The Mighty M.E. Mission, focuses on the environment. The "M.E." stands for Mother Earth and me — as in each individual can save the Earth, said Nepon-Sixt, director of girls programs.
"We're all about fostering strong voices in girls, so we do want to hear what's on their mind," Nepon-Sixt said. "However, our common goal is that we have to put this play together."
Naomi, who has been involved in singing, acting, dancing and chorus most of her life, said she enjoys the mentoring role that stems from Girlstories.
At Charles S. Rushe Middle School in Land O'Lakes where she is a student, her peers have been talking — in a good way.
"Everybody's been coming up to me and asking, 'You met Michelle Obama for real?' " Naomi said. "It's really cool. They put it on the morning news (announcements) and everyone is asking for photos of me with Michelle Obama."
The experience has fostered growth.
"I've noticed I can do a lot after representing (Powerstories) in Washington," Naomi said. "It's an amazing experience that will affect my entire life. I feel like I'm helping the community stand out more and realize there are groups and people in the community that are doing a lot of good things."
Joel Poiley can be reached at [email protected]