PROFILE: Abigail Heuton lives what she says: that young people’s abilities should not be underestimated

Published 5:02 pm Thursday, February 27, 2020

Eighteen-year-old Abigail Heuton is not someone a newcomer to Montevallo City Council meetings would expect to see sitting at the dais on Monday nights. But she is exactly where she is supposed to be—in the chair on the far left, behind a nameplate that reads “Abigail Heuton, Junior Mayor.” The 4-foot, 11-inch teenager is not your typical addition to a council meeting, much less seated next to the council members.

At 6 p.m., you might find her leading the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the meeting, unfazed by the large audience filling the floor seats in the Council Chambers. She has done this and other tasks many times before. But those who know Abigail know she doesn’t take her duties lightly, and she doesn’t take for granted the confidence she has gained in a prestigious role that, years ago, she wouldn’t have thought she could handle.

Shy by nature, Abigail isn’t one to hog the spotlight. She loves to sing and act, but beyond the artistic confines of a song or play, you wouldn’t find her jumping at the chance to command an audience’s attention. That started to change four years ago after her family moved to Montevallo from West Virginia. For starters, Abigail made the leap from a small private school to a larger public school. “I was terrified,” she says. “I came from a class of 25 to a class of 100. When you’re coming from an even smaller school, that seems pretty big.”

It was an adjustment, but Abigail turned it into an opportunity for growth. “She came out of her shell, made friends, set goals and accomplished them,” says her mother, Mary Ellen Heuton. “Overall, the move was very beneficial for her, and she has thrived in the new environment.” Abigail quickly noticed people’s friendliness and diversity in Montevallo, and the strong sense of community they created together made her feel at home. “I fit in more here, I feel like,” she says. As she felt more and more like she fit in, she started to stand out. She just didn’t know what leadership role awaited her.

Abigail went to her first Montevallo Junior City Council meeting four years ago as a guest of a friend who was a member of the organization – a group of middle and high school students whose mission is to improve and promote civic engagement among their peers. “I thought, ‘I want to be a part of that,’” she says. So she went through the interview process and was selected to join the MJCC as a freshman.

The next year, a friend encouraged her to run for junior mayor, the highest officer position of the MJCC. Any member who wants to run for office must stand and give a one- to two-minute speech during the MJCC’s retreat at the beginning of the year, so Abigail rose to the challenge, standing before her peers and delivering hers off the cuff. “That’s not something I would have done in middle school,” she notes. “I didn’t talk a lot, so it was out of my comfort zone.” Even so, she was elected junior mayor.

Montevallo Mayor Hollie Cost knows how much this achievement meant to Abigail since she saw her potential even before Abigail saw it herself. “When I first met Abigail, she was a little shy and didn’t have much confidence, but she always had a little glimmer in her eye, conveyed a great deal of intellect and was eager to grow and learn,” Cost says.

And grow and learn she did. As the new junior mayor, Abigail was expected to represent the MJCC at Montevallo City Council meetings and read a report aloud of the group’s activities. “The first couple times I did, it was very nerve-wracking,” she says. “You don’t want to mess up. I remember being very scared.” But with each meeting, she became more sure of herself—and more comfortable with the council members. “We’re all wanting the same thing—to better our community,” she says.

For Mary Ellen and Paul, Abigail’s father, watching Abigail tackle challenges and find ways to engage others in the community is inspiring. “I’ve seen her speak up several times in a regular City Council meeting, and I’ve been so pleased to see her have the confidence to share her thoughts on a matter and delighted that the council members have treated her with respect in listening to what she had to say,” Mary Ellen says.

Her responsibilities as junior mayor run the gamut. She creates the MJCC meeting agendas and makes sure meetings run efficiently so that all members have a chance to voice their ideas. She also keeps tabs on the organization’s finances and communicates any funding needs with city leaders, along with helping to organize events like the MJCC’s first color run in 2019.

Last but not least, Abigail is asked to speak on behalf of the group at various public events, including Montevallo’s annual Hometown Heroes Breakfast. “About three years ago, I invited her to start presenting the education awards, knowing this would be a bit nerve-wracking for a person her age,” Cost says. “From the first time she stood in front of that microphone, she commanded the room. She prepares her own introductory remarks and presents the awards to the recipients with incredible poise. The only problem with this is she steals the show! My very own mom told me this year that Abigail outshined me, and I absolutely loved it.”

After three years in office, the nerves are still there for Abigail before her speeches, but for good reason. “There are so many people I look up to, and I want them to be proud of me for speaking and proud of what I’m saying.” Even so, she says speaking for the MJCC on so many occasions has made her more confident in who she is and what she stands for—and that her values are more set in stone now. “You learn more about yourself through it.”

She credits Cost for encouraging her to join the MJCC in the first place and being a mentor to her as she navigated her leadership role. “With Mrs. Hollie’s help, I morphed into a leader,” Abigail says. “If I have any problems, she’s somebody I can go speak to and she’ll help me in any way she can.” And the MJCC has afforded Abigail opportunities not only to practice public speaking, but also to hone her organizational skills, networking and community involvement. “Even more importantly it has shown her how to listen, understand and appreciate different perspectives both among her peers during MJCC meetings and from sitting in the meetings of the City Council,” Mary Ellen says. Cost echoes this, noting Abigail is able to get along with many different types of people. “She has great control of her emotions and she has a thirst for knowledge and growth,” she adds. “She has a great ability to self-reflect, alter her course of action when needed and move on.”

Nothing seems to hold Abigail back from reaching her personal goals—not even physical disabilities that set in at an early age. Abigail has glaucoma, a condition in the eye that leads to gradual vision loss. She applies eye drops multiple times a day and wears glasses, but otherwise, you wouldn’t know she faces these issues. “She has never used them as an excuse to not pursue the goals she sets for herself,” Mary Ellen says.

Abigail also has a strong grasp of time management, balancing her schoolwork with her involvement in the MJCC, National Thespian Society, Future Business Leaders of America (she is the secretary), Mu Alpha Theta (she is the president), Parnell Memorial Library (she is assistant librarian), broadcast team and many other groups—all while submitting college and scholarship applications. She wants to major in musical theatre and entertains dreams of auditioning for Broadway and moving to New York City. If that doesn’t pan out, she says she might go to law school. Regardless of where she goes after high school, Abigail says she would happily move back to Montevallo if she can. “I do love it here,” she says.

The mark she has made in every local group she’s involved with won’t be forgotten. “As much as she says she has been motivated by me, I have learned a tremendous deal from working with her,” Cost says. “At times, I even feel that she is a colleague rather than a mentee of sorts. I am so proud of the young woman she is becoming and honored that I’ve been able to work with her for so long.”

Perhaps no one has championed the MJCC’s purpose of fostering greater community involvement among young people more than Abigail. “Everybody has a voice,” she says. “It’s our job to allow the youth to have a voice because we’re going to be here in the future, running the city and government.” And she is quick to remind you that young people should not be discounted as “just kids.” “We also have ideas and want to do better for our community,” she says. “Don’t underestimate the young people; we can do stuff too. That’s my whole message. And, spread positive vibes.”