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At 'Ladies First' summit, they applaud tips on wise choices and self-empowerment.

The choices you make now can affect you for the rest of your life.

That's the message more than 200 teenage girls heard Saturday at the "Ladies First" summit at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

audience at Ladies First SummitThe self-empowerment theme was delivered by an array of speakers at the event held by the nonprofit Communities In Schools dropout prevention group.

No speaker got more applause than Kemba Smith Pradia of Indiana, who as a college student dated a drug dealer and wound up sentenced to 24 years in prison.

"I hope youth can learn from some of the poor choices I made in the past," said Pradia, 39, who travels the country speaking about the nightmare that began with a cute guy she met at a party.

She was a student at Virginia's Hampton University in the early 1990s when the popular older boyfriend who bought her expensive clothes turned out to be dealing crack cocaine.

When he was indicted, she was also charged and eventually convicted of conspiracy to distribute crack. She went to federal prison until President Clinton commuted her sentence in 2000.

"Sometimes in your life you need to step back and observe people and make conscious decisions of who you want to be around," Pradia told the crowd.

"It shouldn't take a cute guy at school to say hello to you to make you feel good about yourself. You're going to have to find that on your own."

Many high school girls in the crowd listened so intently during talks by Pradia and other speakers that they were taking notes and comparing them with friends during breaks.

Workshops the girls attended covered topics such as building strong relationships, living on a budget and dressing appropriately for job interviews. Speakers stressed the importance of education, planning for the future and taking responsibility for your actions.

"I am the epitome of beauty and strength," Summer Barber, 17, read aloud from her notes as she stood with two fellow students from Phillip O. Berry Academy.

"It's teaching us how to love ourselves," she said of the summit.

"And how to manage our money," said her friend Tamiya Rodgers, 17.

"It's inspired me to be a better person all around," said friend Breosha Sowell, 16.

Renee Leak of Communities In Schools said she hopes the summit encourages girls to take care of themselves and be healthy in all aspects of life.

"There's a lot of things we take for granted that someone is teaching them that they're not being taught," said Leak. "They need to learn how to value themselves and love themselves."

By Kathy Haight, The Charlotte Observer. Photos by Deidra Laird, The Charlotte Observer.

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