Autumn McLaughlin pulled her hair out of her ponytail with an embarrassed smile as pictures were taken of her and several ladies dropped in at her place of work.

Autumn McLaughlin pulled her hair out of her ponytail with an embarrassed smile as pictures were taken of her and several ladies dropped in at her place of work.


The last thing she expected on Wednesday was to be surprised by the Soroptimist International of Carthage group at the Crowder College campus in Webb City. She couldn't stop smiling as the ladies explained she was this year's recipient of the Women's Opportunity Award scholarship.
Every year, the group recognizes a local woman furthering her education while facing (or has faced) challenges. The group then lifts up the individual with year-long encouragement, prayers and some helping hands.


“It could be offering to study with them, babysitting, taking them out to lunch – any way we can think of to encourage them,” said Soroptimist Susan Wendleton. “And way more than the money, many recipients have said, what matters most is that someone believed in them.”
And the group believes in Autumn.


In March 2012, Autumn's mother died in a car accident. At that time, Autumn knew she wanted custody of her younger (by 15 months) autistic sister, Ashton.


“It was an instant decision,” Autumn said, now at the age of 20. “I'm so thankful to have her. It is a challenge for me. It's hard to be a parent and not a sister, but I love it. She's a big dreamer, loves to paint and draw. She wants to be an author and zoologist. Someday she wants to go to Africa.”


Ashton is now a junior at the Carthage High School. She and Autumn have happily made a new home together in Carthage since July 2013. Autumn is a full-time college student, works in the Crowder book shop and also works at Minerva Candy Company in Webb City.


“I want a good life for myself,” Autumn said. “I know in order to have that I need a college education. I don't know what I want to do, but I do know I want to help people and be happy to go to work.”


Autumn is engaged to Ethan Clark, who is a big help in her and her sister's lives. And now, a little more than 30 women will be keeping in touch with Autumn to see if she needs anything. On Wednesday, Autumn said they were already answered prayers.


“It's funny this happened because this morning I asked God to lift my spirits somehow,” she told the group. “My hopes were a little down this morning so this came at the perfect time.”


Autumn and her story are now in the running for the district scholarship, and if chosen, she could also win after that at the regional level with the Soroptimist International organization.
Coming up next for the Soroptimist International of Carthage is the annual Spuds N' More fundraiser (which benefits the WOA and Volunteer of the Year award) in March.
The 2015 WOA reference letters will be accepted in December.