The Sisterhood Is Sweet

I finally found a minute to sit down and get a few fun things done. It’s been all work and minimal play lately, so I’m pumped to get back on the blog and share something sweet with you.

Very recently, I had one of the best experiences of my life. Like, ever. You know that feeling you get when you see someone you really missed? Or when you hug your mom after being away? Or being re-united with your best friends after years apart? Combine all of those feelings and call it the National Sweetheart Pageant. It’s basically like a Miss America-style competition, but better. Sorry not sorry, Gretchen.

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The National Sweetheart Pageant is a 75-year tradition in the sweetest little town of Hoopeston, Illinois. Like many festivals in the midwest, a pageant was held in conjunction with Hoopeston’s summer sweetcorn festival to select a young woman to represent the area during the celebration. After WWII, the Hoopeston Jaycees invited more states to be involved, and by 1952, they began inviting the 1st runners-up from each state’s Miss America preliminary competitions. Additionally, judges from the Miss America circuit were invited to judge the pageant, allowing contestants to gain feedback and critique from the best in the business.

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The idea was to bring national recognition to Hoopeston’s sweetcorn festival and give young women from the Miss America Organization an opportunity to polish their skills before competing in their states’ MAO preliminaries again. Come 2016, the Miss America Organization made changes to their contract, allowing the Jaycees to open up the National Sweetheart Pageant to a wider pool of contestants, including women who may have aged out, placed beyond 1st runner-up in their state, etc. (Read more about the National Sweetheart Pageant here)

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I’ve heard nothing but positive things about the National Sweetheart Pageant from girls who have participated in the past, and I knew this was an opportunity I wanted to take advantage of if the time was right and I had the chance to do so. Upon placing 1st runner-up at Miss Wisconsin this year, I asked myself, “What better way to finish the year than by applying for Sweetheart?” BUT, I was hesitant.

Since Miss America changed their contracts in 2016, no woman is allowed to hold a local title within the Miss America Organization while simultaneously competing at National Sweetheart. Since my local MAO title would not conclude until January 2019, I was initially not eligible to compete at Sweetheart unless I resigned as Miss Seven Rivers. However, my local organization would not be not holding a 2019 pageant, so my title could end at any time after Miss Wisconsin, making me eligible for Sweetheart.

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I decided to apply on a whim after thinking some things through. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to prepare for another pageant so soon after being pretty burnt out after Miss Wisconsin this year. Based on how anxious I was at Miss Wis, I debated if it would be mentally healthy to put myself through another week of competition. I was also at a point where I was a recent college grad and didn’t have a full-time position yet, so I weighed the pros and cons of starting my career immediately. Among all of these considerations, something in my heart told me to just take a leap and apply. After all, if something else came up, I could always decline if I were accepted, right?

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I received an e-mail a couple weeks after I submitted my online application. It was close to midnight and I opened my inbox to see, “Congratulations! You have been accepted to be your state’s representative at this year’s National Sweetheart Pageant! This announcement will be posted publicly tomorrow…” HOLD UP. My family had no idea I applied, my local director knew I was considering applying, but I had NOT figured out the logistics if this were to happen. I initially thought that I’d have the chance to accept or decline (ya know, like how college acceptance letters work) but once you’re in, you’re in. Of course, I was giddy and so pumped to have this opportunity, but the anxious side of me had not prepared to jump right in.

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After only a few hours of sleep, I woke up the next morning and told my parents I’d be competing in a short 6 weeks, and my fantastic local director was working out the details to make sure I was eligible (God bless my village). After a few conversations, I was Miss Wisconsin Sweetheart 2018!

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In terms of preparations, I was VERY relaxed. I prepared so heavily for Miss Wisconsin, so I decided I’d take a breath and have fun with this. I wanted Sweetheart to be something I looked forward to, not something I’d have crippling anxiety over. I kept up with the news here and there, ran through my talent when I had time, and believed that this would be a positive experience regardless of how I placed.

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The fun part about Sweetheart is that it’s a family from day one. From the moment we all connected after the announcement, the group chats took over and we became close friends, even before we arrived in Hoopeston. From the production team to the host families to the volunteers, everyone was so invested in making this a positive experience for us. I had quite honestly never been more excited for a pageant in the 5 years of my involvement.

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The time came and I packed up my car to make the five-hour drive to my new home for a few days. When I arrived in Hoopeston on Wednesday, right before Labor Day weekend, I met some volunteers and the other ladies who drove in as we waited for the bus to come from the airport with the girls who flew in.

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Once we were all accounted for, we met our host families to head to the welcome dinner, put on by our official host for the week, Miss Hoopeston, and her family. Again, I can’t stress FAMILY enough!

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The days following consisted of rehearsals and appearances, much like Miss Wisconsin week. We had free time to wander around town to meet various sponsors, have conversations with the locals, and bond with our host families. Every meal we had was made with so much love from a variety of local organizations and volunteers. Seriously, so. much. food. We were having too much fun that most of us forgot that we actually had to compete the next day.

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Preliminary competition took place on Friday and Saturday over Labor Day weekend, where all 20 contestants competed in Interview, Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear, Talent, Evening Gown & Onstage Question. Prior to Saturday’s preliminary night, though, we had one really exciting new element: the Sweetcorn Festival parade, which actually counted for 5% of our preliminary score.

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With my New York Sweetheart, Baylee, before parade judging

For those who are not too familiar with Miss America, there is an annual parade down the Atlantic City boardwalk called the “Show Us Your Shoes” parade, where each contestant dons an outfit that represents their state. We got to have a similar experience at the parade in Hoopeston. Each contestant chose a theme for their state outfit and we each rode in a Corvette convertible to show off our outfits on the parade route. I debated between a few themes to represent Wisconsin, from a dairy theme to the waterpark capital to Door County cherries. I ultimately decided to create an outfit that would pay homage to the culture of my hometown region near Baraboo, Wisconsin, where the Ringling Bros. Circus was born. I don’t have a sewing bone in my body, so this thing was made almost entirely of hot glue and diligence. I must say, not too shabby.

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Before the parade began, we met with the judges while wearing our parade outfits to have a short 2-minute conversation, explaining the inspiration behind our outfit choices. Riding down the parade route, it was so cool to hear people yelling your state, and watching all the kids light up at the sight of our fun costumes. This was definitely a highlight of the Sweetheart experience.

When the night set in, it was time for the preliminary competition. You best believe I was STOKED to wear my swimsuit one more time and strut my stuff. All went well, and at the end of the night, I ended up in a three-way tie for the Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear Award! Say what?!

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The next morning, we all gathered for a meet and greet with the public before visiting with more community organizations and volunteers. I woke up not believing that it was the last day I’d be spending with my newfound family. I did NOT want to leave.

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Soon enough, the final night of competition creeped up too quickly. By the end of the week, we had all grown so close that it really didn’t matter who made Top 10. We were all genuinely excited for one another, which made the experience that much more positive for us all.

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Based on preliminary scores, the Top 10 was decided, and Wisconsin made it into the mix! This meant I had the chance to compete in Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear, Talent, and Evening Gown one more time. I had an absolute blast and just had fun performing again.

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Talent

My progression ended there, but I was very proud to end up in the Top 10 at a national pageant, and also leaving with a preliminary win and the Ronnie Reed Community Service Award. The fact that National Sweetheart awarded scholarships, like MAO, was another huge perk to my already-fantastic experience. BYE STUDENT LOANS.

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Evening Gown

My beautiful friends, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, California, and New York, advanced to the Top 5 and the title went to my Louisiana sister (who I’m honored to say is the only person I know who can completely contort her body while swinging through the air on silks). The talent at this pageant, guys, I swear.

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Lots of love for my Louisiana girl

I ended the night back at my host family’s house, sitting on the living room floor eating a piece of homemade pie, enjoying a few last laughs with my new family and all those who traveled to see me. I hesitated as I packed my bags and reflected on the definition of community, “a feeling of fellowship with others.” Before Sweetheart, I thought I understood community, but boy, was I wrong. The people of Hoopeston showed me what a true community feels like. The entire town came together to support all 20 of us, making sure we felt welcome everywhere we went. I cannot thank this beautiful place enough for filling my heart up so full.

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I received a few questions during this process, so I thought I’d throw in some of the frequently asked right here…

Q & A

Why did you choose to compete in the National Sweetheart Pageant?

  • Sisterhood and scholarships were my main motivators. The National Sweetheart Pageant has a reputation of treating their girls SO well and I can completely attest to that. I also wanted to represent Wisconsin on a national stage, be able to perform again before retiring the crown, and be part of a new community. I walked away with everything listed and more.

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Why isn’t National Sweetheart in relations with MAO, and why did you have to give up your title?

  • I wish I knew why MAO cut ties with Sweetheart. It’s truly unfortunate, but essentially, you cannot hold a title in MAO while also at Sweetheart. Luckily, I did not have to resign or “quit” MAO! My wonderful local director decided to step down, so my local program was not going to hold a 2019 pageant, meaning my job as Miss Seven Rivers could be done any time after Miss Wisconsin. Because my local title was finished, I was eligible to compete for Sweetheart.

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Why don’t all 50 states compete?

  • It would be AWESOME if all 50 states competed! Since National Sweetheart is application-based and there aren’t any state preliminary competitions associated with it, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a rep from every state. If nobody applies from a certain state, then that state doesn’t have a contestant. SO, encourage all your out-of-state pageant friends to apply for Sweetheart next year! The more the merrier.
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Sharing the love with my D.C. sis

What is the difference between the Miss America Organization and the National Sweetheart Pageant?

  • The main difference is that MAO has local, state, and national levels. Sweetheart is only a national pageant. Another minor difference is scoring. While the areas of competition are the same (except Sweetheart didn’t say #ByeByeBikini this year), the scoring is slightly different due to parade wear being a judged area of competition at Sweetheart. Otherwise, they are very similar!

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How did your experience in MAO differ from National Sweetheart?

  • Sweetheart was SO much more relaxed! Every woman was there for a positive experience, which eliminated any competitiveness. It was almost as if we were all just on a girls vacation. Seriously, such a blast. Of course, I had lots of great times in MAO, but none that are comparable to Sweetheart.

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Where did you stay while you were at the pageant?

  • Host families! The nearest hotel is about 20 miles away (yes, Hoopeston is very small) so all contestants were split, about 2-4 per household, to stay with some pretty wonderful volunteers in the community. This was honestly the best part about Sweetheart, because it felt just like home. Our host parents fed us (A LOT. SO MUCH.) and drove us to all of our appearances, rehearsals, etc. Shout out to my host family, Mama & Papa T and Mitchell, and my LAMIWINY girls for the most laughs on island time.
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LAMIWINY and our host parents

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My host mama, Angie

What did the judges ask you in your interview?

  • The private interview at Sweetheart is virtually the same as in any MAO competition. You spend 10 minutes with the panel of judges and discuss anything from your resume, education, current events, platform, etc. It’s all open game. In my interview, I had the chance to talk a lot about my education and new career in PR, along with the work I’ve done for my platform, GEMS-Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve.
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Prayers before interviews

Who can compete at Sweetheart?

  • In the past, it was typically open to the 1st runner-up or another girl from the Top 5 in her state MAO competition, but in recent years, almost any woman between the ages of 19 and 26! Check to see if you’re eligible by clicking here and here. If you are, APPLY. You will not regret it.
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East coast, Midwest, West Coast

Will you be competing for Miss Wisconsin again?

  • It’s unlikely. To be honest, my passion just doesn’t lie there anymore. I think it’s perfectly okay to pursue different paths and take advantage of bigger goals, so that’s where I’m headed! I recently started my career and I’m investing a lot of time and energy in that avenue. However, I’m DEFINITELY planning on staying involved as a volunteer and by supporting all the women who will be competing!

As I conclude, never have I ever had such a positive, welcoming experience in my life. THANK YOU to my family and friends, pageant peeps, and Hoopeston family for supporting me on this little adventure. The Hoopeston community and everyone involved with the National Sweetheart Pageant will always be tucked away in a very special place in my heart. Until next year, family.

Love always,

Jessica

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“Your New Miss Wisconsin Is…”

That sentence gives me butterflies.

I’ve written and re-written this post countless times, trying to come up with the right words to express how I feel about Miss Wisconsin week 2018, one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging experiences I’ve had in quite some time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m forever grateful for this experience and it was nothing short of breathtaking. I left with about $3,000 in scholarships, a preliminary swimsuit award, a marketing and communications award, 26 friendships, a full heart, and a greater sense of what I’m capable of.

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The Golden Cadillac

Never did I ever think I’d be standing in the final two. Of course, I dreamt of it for years, but I never imagined it would ACTUALLY be happening. As I stood there, waiting for a moment that could potentially change the course of my professional career, I had only a few seconds to prepare myself for a wide spectrum of emotions. In just a moment, my heart could be broken right there or it could be on it’s way to Miss America. In that moment, that flimsy little piece of paper held by the emcee had so much power. Scary, right?

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Miss Wisconsin is a job I’ve been working toward for about five years. I’d be lying if I told you I dreamed of becoming Miss America since I was five years old. I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t really learn much about the Miss America Organization until I was a high school senior, entering my first local pageant. I learned that I could be a servant leader, advocate for issues I’m passionate about, and earn scholarships for college. What did I have to lose? The idea that I could start a positive chain reaction in my community was something that set my heart on fire. Since then, I knew the job of Miss Wisconsin was something I wanted to continue to pursue.

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With Elise, Miss South Central

Over the past five years, I began to understand what this job truly entails (and yes, it is a full-time job for 365 days). I learned that this is NOT a job that is all about me. Miss Wisconsin is a representative of this state and the people who live here. She is a voice for the voiceless, using a sparkly crown as a microphone. She is someone with a big heart and an open mind. She is a servant leader who dedicates her time and energy to bettering the lives of those she meets. You can’t create a Miss Wisconsin; she must already live in the hearts of very few women.

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Miss Badgerland, my wonderful roomie for the week

This idea was something I always had a focus on, but it became much clearer as I pursued my second local title over the past couple of years. If I truly wanted to be Miss Wisconsin, I had to find her in myself.

Blood, Sweat, Tears and Fears

For a lot of contestants, myself included, there’s a huge focus on preparing heavily for the specific areas of competition: Private Interview, Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear (R.I.P), Onstage Question, Talent, and Evening Gown. We put in countless sweaty hours at the gym for that swimsuit bod and we rehearse our talents until there’s literal blood, sweat, and tears. We study every news article we can get our hands on, and search endlessly for the perfect evening gown and wardrobe. I chose to look at each area of competition individually and pinpoint specific ways I can improve. For example, talent is a category that I have to work extra hard at, so I dedicated a large majority of my time to polishing my routine (THANK YOU Haley, Hayley, Laura and Scott!!!) I also get really nervous for Onstage Question, so I made sure to study a variety of current events and understand my thoughts on them so I could deliver a well-thought-out answer.

Although important, those areas of competition are not what make someone a great Miss Wisconsin. If I were to be Miss Wisconsin, I wanted to be 110% authentically Jessica first. The largest part of my preparations leading up to Miss Wisconsin included reflection. I asked myself, “Why do I want this job? What do I bring to the table? How am I ready for this? What can I do to further prepare myself, not only for the competition, but for this job? How can I share my heart and be completely Jess in every area of competition?”

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This was hands-down the most beneficial tactic I used to prepare for this opportunity. I decided to take extra time to get to know myself, so I could best communicate to the judges exactly who I am and what unique qualities I could contribute to the role.

By the time Miss Wisconsin week rolled around, I felt ready. Lemme tell ya all about it…

The Time Has Come

The week itself is always a wild experience. For those who aren’t familiar, all 27 contestants arrive in Oshkosh on a Sunday to unpack before a short evening orientation and rehearsal at the hotel.

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With Miss Onalaska and Miss Northern Lights on arrival day

On Monday, we were up early for a full day of rehearsals with our production team and a luncheon with the Winnebagoland Shrine Club and veterans from King, WI. My table was introduced to a lovely lady named Barb. Her husband served in the Army and they had been married for 61 years while residing in Antigo, WI.

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With Miss Wisconsin Rapids, Miss La Crosse/Oktoberfest, and our lovely guest, Barb.

Following our afternoon of rehearsal, we were all off to The Waters for Merchant’s Dinner, a semi-formal event with all of our sponsors, the state board of directors, and our panel of judges. I had the pleasure of sitting by Addison, the sweetest little gem. We shared lots of laughs and excitement over glitter, cheer and dance, and potatoes. A girl after my own heart.

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At Merchant’s Dinner

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With my sponsor, Tony, representing Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, S.C., and his daughter, Addison.

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With Miss Wisconsin Rapids, Miss Wisconsin Central, Miss Fond du Lac, Miss New Berlin, Miss Sparta, and Miss Door County

On Tuesday morning, my group (contestants #15-27) went over to the auditorium for our talent rehearsal before meeting Group 1 (contestants #1-14) for lunch with the Oshkosh Kiwanis Club. We all had the chance to get some fresh air and share our platforms before heading back to rehearsal.

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Talking about my platform at the Kiwanis Picnic

On Wednesday, I was up VERY early to get ready for my private interview. I woke up feeling a strange mix of emotions, mainly because I had spent the past 6 months (or years, I suppose) preparing for this day. I was eager to have my time with the judges, but also anxious over the fact that I had to fit everything I wanted them to know about me–my goals, plans, accomplishments, challenges, and redeeming qualities–in just 10 minutes. Once I stepped into that room, time flew and it was done before I could blink. I shared my heart and left feeling like the judges knew who I was. I walked out of the interview room feeling relieved and content, and that’s all I could have asked for.

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Post-interview!

Following my interview, we all headed over to the auditorium for lunch with the Miss Wisconsin’s Outstanding Teen contestants before another rehearsal leading into night one of preliminary competition. My group competed in Onstage Question and Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear that night, and boy, was I NERVOUS. I’ll be honest, Onstage Question is my least favorite area of competition. The worst, I won’t even sugarcoat it. I could probably count on one hand the number of women who look forward to Onstage Question. There’s some sort of unwritten expectation to solve the world’s problems in less than 20 seconds without spewing complete word vomit. My preliminary onstage question was about whether or not I felt Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian probing was constitutional. Naturally, my brain decided to take a field day as I delivered my answer, and I walked off the stage with a confident smile, but feeling incredibly disappointed.

However, it was over, there was nothing more I could do, so I had to move on and focus on the next area of competition and A SISTER WAS READY. Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear has always been one of my favorite areas of competition because it allows you to showcase the hard work you put in to your health and wellness, physically and mentally. Those who have never walked on stage in a swimsuit will probably never fully understand the feeling, but it is liberating. I was especially motivated this year because I was aware that the Miss America Organization will be eliminating this area of competition come September (I’ll share my feels another day…) so this would potentially be my last chance to have this unique experience.

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Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear – Prelims

After all areas of night one preliminary competitions were done, I was quietly hoping that I could earn the preliminary Lifestyle & Fitness award, something I had my sights set on for a while. To me, a healthy lifestyle encompasses physical AND mental wellness. Mentally, I’ve faced some challenges over the past handful of years, and Miss Wisconsin week was especially difficult for me this year (shout out to you, anxiety). I had a hard time sleeping and eating most days, and had a constant voice in the back of my mind shouting negative thoughts, but I tried to push them aside and focus on the present. Despite many tears, I send so much thanks to my family, friends, director, and the women around me for pushing me through the week when my mind wanted to give up.

We all also have our own struggles with body image, and there were a lot of women sharing the stage who had the muscle and curves that I always wished for. However, every body is different, so I had to learn to love mine for what it’s capable of, unleash my inner Beyoncé, and fuel my body with what it needed throughout the process. At the end of the night, I was named the preliminary Lifestyle & Fitness winner. I hope I made Beyoncé proud.

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Receiving the preliminary Lifestyle & Fitness award

Thursday was night two of prelims, and my group competed in Talent and Evening Gown. TBH, talent has never been my favorite area of competition either. It’s something that I have always had to work really hard at. This year, instead of performing a lyrical dance, I wanted to do something super fun. A high-energy jazz routine to “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen seemed to do the trick (and a costume that sparkled for miles also helped, thanks to my forever director, Katie). I’ve never been more excited for the talent phase of competition! My evening gown was also something I looked forward to wearing that night and I felt a perfect balance between sassy and sophisticated (thanks to Kathy at Bridal Elegance). It was a good night.

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Talent – Prelims

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Evening Gown (Bridal Elegance – Ottawa, IL)

Friday was our day to let loose and relax, which was nice because at this point during the week, we all transform into The Walking Dead. The “Strikes for Scholarships” bowling fundraiser was a blast (hello, there was pizza) and gave us a chance to step away from rehearsals and competition for a while.

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With Miss Green Bay Area, Miss South Central, and Miss Sugar Maple

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At the hotel, after a quick nap, we all got ready to cheer on our Teen queens at the Miss Wisconsin’s Outstanding Teen competition. I’ve technically never had my own Teen before, but I “adopted” a pretty great one (Savannah, Miss Halfway Creek’s Outstanding Teen) and was so excited to cheer her on as she placed 2nd runner-up! I was also rooting for Mandi, my sweet hometown sister, who ended up taking home the crown! Seeing all the Teens light up the stage was a reminder that the following night, we would be crowning a new Miss Wisconsin.

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Lots of love for my sweet teen queen, Savannah

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Congratulations, Mandi!

Saturday was a strange day. I woke up feeling physically and emotionally exhausted and anxious about the night ahead. We spent the morning at the Oshkosh Farmer’s Market before heading to Festival Foods for lunch and a meet & greet. Then, we went to the auditorium for one last rehearsal before finals. On Saturday evening, we don’t know who will be performing, since only the Top 11 have the chance to move on in the competition. Although I was so content with my performances during the week, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was one of those eleven women that would be announced later that evening.

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At the Oshkosh Farmer’s Market

After a quick snooze at the hotel (naps are essential when you’re running on 4-5 hours of sleep each night), I took a moment to reflect on the past week. I looked back at where I started in this organization five years ago as a 17 year-old high school senior. I remembered where I was two years ago during my first time at Miss Wisconsin. I saw where I was just six months ago when I started this year as Miss Seven Rivers. Something consistent between all three was GROWTH. Regardless of what was going to happen on Saturday evening, whether I was going to finish as a non-finalist, if I was going to make the Top 11, Top 5, or even if I were to become Miss Wisconsin 2018, I was incredibly proud of the path I’ve been walking and the growth that has happened along the way—growth in my heart, in my mind, with my platform, in my community, toward my career, through my education, and beyond. Whatever was going to happen would be such a small part of my journey and growth. There was a myriad of beautiful moments that came before this day and a lifetime of opportunities that lie ahead.

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Come Saturday evening, we all gathered backstage for prayer before taking our places to find out who would move on in the competition. I’ll be honest, I had to force myself to feel okay with being a non-finalist again. As much as I wanted to be in the Top 11 to perform once again, I had to prepare myself to accept the fact that I might not be. It’s a strange mental battle.

After the first four of the Top 11 were called, I suddenly heard my name and felt a huge wave of relief and some happy tears. I made it!

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Top 11

Swimsuit, Talent, and Evening Gown flew by and it was time to line up again to find out who would advance to the Top 5. Quite honestly, I was absolutely content right there. I had my chance to perform again, I soaked in every moment of that evening and felt honored to be standing there in the Top 11.

But just a moment later, I was called into the Top 5 and I WAS SHOOK. How did I get here?! I had only a few seconds to be excited before stepping forward to complete one more area of competition…the final Onstage Question (dun dun dunnnn).

HOWEVER, by the grace of the good lord above, my brain and vocal cords seemed to work together this time and I walked off the stage feeling good about my answer and delivery. And that was that. There was nothing more I could do and I was either Miss Wisconsin 2018 or a runner-up, and I was over the moon for either one.

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Top 5

We stepped forward to hear the results…

“Fourth runner-up is…”

“Third runner-up is…”

I was still standing there.

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Last 3

“Second runner-up is…”

Before I knew it, the chance that I would be on my way to Miss America was closer than I’d ever imagined. At first, I honestly didn’t realize I was standing in the final two because I was clapping and so excited for Elise, who stepped forward as second runner-up.

Then, I turned to my right and I noticed that it was just Tia and I standing there (AGAIN, HOW DID I GET HERE?!) and in just a minute, one of us would be Miss Wisconsin and the other would be the first runner-up.

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In that moment, waiting for one of our names to be called, I don’t remember what I was thinking, but I only had a second to prepare myself for what was about to happen.

“And your new Miss Wisconsin is…”

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That split second is one I don’t think I’ll forget for a while. Yes, my heart sunk, realizing that it wasn’t my name, but I also got to participate in the joy and excitement of another woman’s dream coming true.

As much as I wanted to be Miss Wisconsin, as did the 26 other phenomenal women standing on that stage, I am incredibly honored and content to be named first runner-up.

Onward, Upward, Forward

Waking up on Sunday morning was actually relieving. I got to go home, sleep in my bed, see my family and my dog, and continue being Miss Seven Rivers 2018. I still took home thousands of dollars in scholarships, many friendships, and so much love from everyone around me. I truly felt like I had won.

So what now? I’m still Miss Seven Rivers until January 2019, I have lots of fun ideas to continue sharing my platform with the state of Wisconsin, I’m on the post-grad job search, and LOVING my local Culver’s drive thru. FACT: I ate Culver’s every day for at least six days after Miss Wisconsin week. I didn’t deprive myself beforehand, but a good Butter Burger heals the soul, I pinky promise.

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With Miss Onalaska, Miss La Crosse/Oktoberfest, Miss Wisconsin Rapids, Miss Racine, and Miss Milwaukee Area

I’ve been asked if I will compete again next year, and to be completely honest, I don’t know. This program has changed drastically over the past year, and it is not the same organization I fell in love with five years ago. I’m anxious to watch the Miss America Competition in September, and I am also nervous for how the changes and lack of effective communication by the national board will affect our beloved local programs. Time will tell.

Although I’m not entirely sure where my path in the Miss America Organization will be headed in the next year, I AM sure that the path behind me has been the most rewarding experience of my life thus far. Many doors have been opened because of this program, and for that, I am forever grateful.

I have never done this alone, and I have so much love for those who have been with me throughout this time. My family, friends, and amazing director, Abby…thank you for your constant love and belief in this wild dream of mine. The gifts, words of encouragement, sweet notes, and hugs…I could go on and on. Thank you for the sacrifices you’ve made to help push me to where I am now.

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Thank you, Abby!

To those who worked behind the scenes with me, from mock interviews to wardrobe assistance to talent critique, I thank you for your time, generosity, and knowledge.

To those we shared the week with–volunteers, hostesses, production team, directors, community members–thank you for your hospitality. The encouraging hugs and pep talks (and the food, of course) were greatly appreciated! Thank you for donating yourselves to us.

To the 26 women I shared this experience with, thank you for simply being. The week was filled with so much positivity, encouragement, and understanding. There are very few feelings like the moment when you walk off stage after a performance to be greeted by a group of empowered women who share the same dream, but also the same joy and excitement for another woman’s success.

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From my perspective, Miss Wisconsin is not the be-all and end-all. This entire experience is one beautiful stepping stone to an even more wonderful final destination. Wherever this path leads me, I can’t wait to get there.

Love always,

Jessica

 

What Is GEMS?

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If you follow my social media or have watched my journey through the Miss America Organization, you’ve probably heard me mention something called GEMS a few times. You may already know about it, or you could be wondering, “What is GEMS?” Well, today is your lucky day, because I want to share one of my favorite things in the entire WORLD with you.

Let’s go wayyy back…

If you know anything about the Miss America Organization, you know that a huge part of being involved is having the opportunity to choose a platform (an issue or cause that you feel passionate about that you wish to promote). Many women will choose their platform based on their personal life experiences, or partner with an organization that they truly love. Some examples include platforms about military support, mental health awareness, the importance of arts education, autism awareness, literacy, domestic violence awareness, etc. Essentially, every woman has a unique story that they are able to share through their platform.

I always had a passion for women and girl’s empowerment, so I knew that it would be a great thing to be able to promote through my platform. I am the oldest of five children in my family, I was an assistant cheer/dance coach for a year, and I volunteer with Girl Scouts, among other opportunities to see the impact of girl’s empowerment. Through these experiences, I have seen how important it is for girls to feel strong and confident, because it fuels their fire to succeed.

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First, I chose to promote the Girl Up campaign through the United Nations Foundation, which was something I really enjoyed. Girl Up focuses on ensuring that every girl, worldwide, has the resources to be safe, healthy, educated, and counted. I am still a huge supporter of this campaign, however, I wanted to hit a little closer to home.

I thought to myself, “Jess, why not have your own program?”

This is when I teamed up with a wonderful friend and mentor, Brenda Collins, to share ideas and develop a program for girls right here at home. We wanted every girl to find their worth, know that they are valued, and allow them to begin to explore some ways that they can use their individual talents and passions to serve others. This is when GEMS was born.

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SO…what is GEMS?

GEMS is an acronym standing for Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve. It is a program designed for young girls and women to interact, support, and encourage one another to be confident, motivated, and service-minded.

With GEMS, I am able to reach out to community organizations and schools across Wisconsin to organize workshops and establish clubs for girls (and even boys) to join, learn, and participate in conversation and activities about goal setting, perseverance, self worth, exploring talents and passions, life skills, and community service opportunities.

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GEMS Workshop VS. GEMS Club

The difference between a GEMS workshop and a GEMS club is permanence. A GEMS workshop can be held ANYWHERE with any group of people. It is a one-time event, usually scheduled to be a couple hours long, we discuss a variety of topics during that time, and participate in a small service project. A GEMS club, on the other hand, is more permanent. For example, the GEMS Club at Portage High School consists of about 65 girls total. We meet monthly to discuss a different topic at each meeting, participate in group activities, and plan larger service projects throughout the school year.

Some of our members of the PHS GEMS Club

GEMS workshops are usually tailored specifically to the group I meet with. From Daisy Girl Scouts, to co-ed middle school classrooms, to a Kiwanis Club, the curriculum differs slightly depending on the needs and interests of the group. My favorite part about it is that I am able to bring something new to the table at every workshop!

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Why is this important?

Our communities need confident, motivated, service-minded young people to step up and be the next generation of leaders. It’s important that we provide an environment for young people, specifically girls, to empower each other, find their passions, and steer those passions into an avenue of community service. Each girl possesses a unique ability and it’s crucial that we encourage them to use their talents in positive ways to contribute to their communities.

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If you have more questions about GEMS, or would like to schedule a visit to your classroom, organization, event, meeting, or troop, please contact gemswisconsin@gmail.com for more information. I can’t wait to meet more sparkling GEMS across the state of Wisconsin.

Love always,

Jessica

Shining GEMS: Brenda Collins

In 2016, a program called “GEMS- Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve” was born. I saw a need for positive female role models in our communities to influence, encourage, and inspire the youngest generation of leaders. As a contestant in the Miss America Organization, I aimed to create a community of strong, powerful girls who wish to make a difference. As I go on the road to host GEMS workshops and share a love for service with others, I decided to feature MORE amazing women who also dedicate their time and talents toward making their communities a better place.

In continuation of this blog series, meet Brenda Collins, a woman of faith with a heart for service. I’ve had the privilege of working with Brenda for a few years now throughout my journey within the Miss America Organization. She has also been an amazing resource in the development of the GEMS program and I’m so lucky to call her a great friend and mentor.

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Brenda is a Wisconsin Rapids native and had the opportunity to serve her hometown as Miss Wisconsin Rapids Area in 2001. Shortly after high school, she received her certification in Youth Ministry Studies and pursued her career wholeheartedly.

In 2005, Brenda moved to Portage, Wisconsin and began working with high school teens in her parish. Since then, she has organized and embarked on several mission trips around the country doing inner city service work. For three years, she also served as the Executive Director for a local Miss America Organization scholarship program held in Portage.

In 2015, Brenda got involved with a local service organization called Love Begins Here, which led her on a total of 16 weeks of missionary work.

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Today, Brenda stays involved by serving as a judge and mentor within the Miss America Organization and volunteering as a Lead Missionary and Host Site Work Coordinator for Love Begins Here.

Love Begins Here is a Catholic service learning program inspired by Saint Mother Teresa’s call to bring love into one’s own community.

“This past summer, there were over 600 teens in the Madison area that put in over 17,000 hours of service,” Brenda said.

At an LBH mission trip, teens learn about the Mission Manifesto, which instills the importance of putting neighbors first, doing small things with great love, and learning what it means to be a missionary.

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“I thought the concepts of doing small things with great love and starting service work in local neighborhoods were so much more realistic and doable for teens,” Brenda said. “These are concepts that everyone can do on a daily basis and learn to do more frequently. They don’t have to wait every year or go to faraway places to put service and love into action.”

Brenda has learned a lot from being involved. For example, she believes that sometimes we get caught up in thinking that making a difference means we have to do something big or be in a position of power.

“It’s quite the opposite! If we all did small things with great love for those we interact with every day, the world would be a much better place. The people that we’ve served have been so grateful for our help and time spent with them,” Brenda said. “It makes you feel good and want to do more.”

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Brenda has found inspiration in the teens, as many of them come back year after year to participate.

“They take a week from their summer vacation to help their neighbors in need and grow in their faith,” Brenda said. “We often hear a lot about what is wrong with the current generation of teens, but after working alongside them for a week, I see a lot that is positive and uplifting.”

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Brenda believes that it’s important for girls to get involved in something that will give them a sense of purpose.

“Not only does it help the community, but it helps girls gain self-esteem and learn more about who they are. When you take time to help others, you see a different perspective,” Brenda said. “Focusing on others can also distract your mind from any negative thoughts about yourself and help you see yourself in a new light.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Love Begins Here, visit their website or Facebook page! You can also reach out to your own church or other faith based organization in your community to find more opportunities for mission work.

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“A great way to get involved is simply by living out the Mission Manifesto, doing small things with great love, and giving service to your neighbors.”

Brenda is a great example of  embracing your faith to give back to your community. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is, you don’t have to travel far to make a difference in the lives of others. The people who need the most might be right next door.

Shining GEMS: Serena Larie

In 2016, a program called “GEMS- Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve” was born. I saw a need for positive female role models in our communities to influence, encourage, and inspire the youngest generation of leaders. As a contestant in the Miss America Organization, I aimed to create a community of strong, powerful girls who wish to make a difference. As I go on the road to host GEMS workshops and share a love for service with others, I decided to feature MORE amazing women who also dedicate their time and talents toward making their communities a better place.

In continuation of this blog series, meet Serena Larie, a former Miss Oshkosh and a young woman with a mission to G.I.V.E. back in any way she can.

Serena is currently a senior studying Communication and Radio-TV-Film at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. Serena was also born and raised in Oshkosh, a place that means a lot to her family.

“My sister and I both held the title of Miss Oshkosh, so it’s a city very near and dear to our hearts.” Serena said.

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Serena has always had a passion for people and assisting them in any way possible. One way she does this is by working with the Community Blood Center.

“I began donating blood when I was 17. The initial appeal was all the pizza and ice cream offered at our high school blood drives,” Serena admitted. “However, after my first donation, I fell in love with the fact that even though I was the one giving blood, I was gaining much more in return.”

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Serena was determined to graduate high school as a “Gallon Grad,” which involved donating up to a gallon of blood before gradation. With eight weeks between a single donation, she raced to accomplish her goal, completing additional donations of platelets and plasma.

“I achieved my goal and proudly donned the Community Blood Center cords at graduation. It was in that moment, I vowed blood donation and my relationship with my supportive Community Blood family would not end there,” Serena said.

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As a regular donor and advocate for blood donation and the Community Blood Center, Serena was asked to share her experiences and the story of her tiny inspiration, Mira, at a high school blood donation conference. At just nine months old, Mira was diagnosed with HLH, a disease that weakened her immune system by destroying blood cells, causing severe inflammation, organ and tissue damage, and an extremely low blood count.

“I was so moved by her story and the Erdmann family’s appreciation for all the donations that gave them a happy, healthy daughter. It was yet another reminder that I was pursuing my passion,” Serena said.

After speaking at the conference, Serena had the honor of being pictured next to Mira on the side of the Community Blood Bus.

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From this point, Serena began seeking additional opportunities to promote the important message of getting involved and being an engaged citizen.

“I competed in the Miss Oshkosh Scholarship Pageant and was crowned Miss Oshkosh in 2016. I developed a platform called G.I.V.E, standing for “Get Involved Via Engagement,” to advocate during my year of service and beyond,” Serena said.

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G.I.V.E. encourages people to actively engage in their communities and experience the value of doing so. Involvement contributes to the overall well-being of a community and plays a vital role in the health of individuals by giving them purpose, hope, and positivity through meaningful activity.

“Blood donation is one of the many ways I personally choose to give back to my community, but there are so many unique ways in which each individual can G.I.V.E. of him or herself,” Serena said.

Serena encourages youth, and young GEMS in particular, to practice kindness every day, help their families and communities, G.I.V.E, learn the value of serving others, and immerse themselves fully into their passions, interests, and goals.

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“It is so fulfilling to see your personal contributions benefit others. Ask what you can do for someone. Be the change you want to see in the world. You have every opportunity to make a difference, so spread kindness, compassion, and love everywhere you go,” Serena said. “Never forget that we rise by lifting others.”

Serena is a beautiful example of what it means to (literally) dedicate your life to your community. Blood donation was something she tried once, and over the course of a few years, that simple decision to try something new has provided her with countless opportunities to spread her love for involvement to so many others.

Shining GEMS: Emily Klein

In 2016, a program called “GEMS- Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve” was born. I saw a need for positive female role models in our communities to influence, encourage, and inspire the youngest generation of leaders. As a contestant in the Miss America Organization, I aimed to create a community of strong, powerful girls who wish to make a difference. As I go on the road to host GEMS workshops and share a love for service with others, I decided to feature MORE amazing women who also dedicate their time and talents toward making their communities a better place.

In continuation of this blog series, meet Emily Klein, a Michigan native with a passion for leadership in youth empowerment programs.

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Emily grew up in Menominee, Michigan and graduated high school in 2014. She then moved on to receive her Associate of Arts and Science degree in 2016 from UW-Marinette. Emily will soon finish her college career at UW-Stevens Point as a Studio Arts major with a minor in Business Administration. She hopes to pursue a career in graphic design (hit her up if you need some AMAZING web design work, you won’t regret it).

In the summer, Emily works as a camp coordinator at her hometown YMCA and also enjoys being a Big Sister with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Stevens Point.

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Emily and the YMCA

At the YMCA, Emily holds a leadership position as a camp coordinator. One of her responsibilities is managing a program called Adventure Camp, where kids can gain life skills, explore the outdoors, and develop their leadership skills.

“Our mission statement is ‘to put Christian principles into practice through programs that help build a strong mind, spirit, and body for all.’ We also have four core values: Respect, Responsibility, Caring, and Honesty,” Emily said.

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Emily has been with the YMCA for four years, usually involved with the child care programs each year.

“My favorite part is the summer camps. During the past two summers, I have been the coordinator for the oldest group, which works with 9-12 year-old kids. Each week during the summer, we have a different theme for Adventure Camp. My job is to plan daily activities to go along with the theme, including crafts, physical activities, and swimming,” Emily said.

A big part of Adventure Camp is keeping the kids engaged and taking them on field trips.

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“Our favorite field trip is going to the animal shelter to pet all the kitties!” Emily said.

Emily initially choose to get involved at the YMCA simply because she needed a job during high school.

“I was a senior in high school and I needed a job, but the Y was much more than just a job. Everyone here is so kind and helpful. When I joined the Y, I joined a family,” Emily said.

Emily mentioned that working at the YMCA has given her the opportunity to create great relationships with many children and community members.

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Emily and BBBS

Along with her involvement at the YMCA, Emily also serves as a Big Sister within the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

BBBS makes it possible for young kids to have strong role models in their lives. Most of the Big Brothers/Sisters are in college, and Littles range from about second grade to high school.

“Just about a year ago, I was paired with a Little Sister at one of the local elementary schools. Once a week, I meet my Little for lunch. We eat lunch together and either play games or do a craft. In the summer, while I am home in Michigan, we stay in contact with each other as pen pals,” Emily said.

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Emily chose to get involved with BBBS because she missed being involved with kids during the school year while she was away from home and her local YMCA.

“BBBS is such a great program to get involved with and build relationships with kids. Even though you’re only paired with one child, you’re still making a big difference,” Emily said.

Emily’s Takeaway, How To Get Involved

“The most important thing that I learned from both of these organizations is to always be kind. The children you work with come from all different places and backgrounds. Unfortunately, they aren’t always in good situations. I think it’s so important to be kind to them. Sometimes all they need is a little bit of love and attention,” Emily said.

Anyone can get involved with these organizations by applying to be a volunteer. If you want to become a Big Brother or Big Sister, check out more information on the Big Brothers Big Sisters website.

There are so many ways to get involved through the YMCA as well. If you’d like to apply at the YMCA, all you have to do is stop in at your local Y and check out the open job opportunities or ask about being a volunteer.

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“I think it is so important to give back. As girls, we can help other girls and children grow up and be positive role models too. We have to lead by example,” Emily said.

Emily has chosen to be a positive role model for kids in her community. What started as a high school job soon became a passion. Working with children has helped Emily grow and has given her so many more opportunities to serve and lead.

Shining GEMS: Susan Fochs

In 2016, a program called “GEMS- Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve” was born. I saw a need for positive female role models in our communities to influence, encourage, and inspire the youngest generation of leaders. As a contestant in the Miss America Organization, I aimed to create a community of strong, powerful girls who wish to make a difference. As I go on the road to host GEMS workshops and share a love for service with others, I decided to feature MORE amazing women who also dedicate their time and talents toward making their communities a better place.

In continuation of this blog series, get ready to meet an incredible young woman I call a friend and sister, Susan Fochs.

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Susan grew up in Door County, Wisconsin and just received her Bachelor of Science degree in Human Services Leadership from UW-Oshkosh in May. She is also currently serving as  Miss Door County 2017 (and let’s be real, I don’t know a single person who WASN’T jumping out of their seats when she was crowned).

Susan has always gone above and beyond when it comes to community involvement. She has been a volunteer, guest speaker, and alumni with the Wisconsin Leadership Seminar; a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin – Fox Valley; a volunteer with Girls on the Run; an intern and volunteer with the Oshkosh Area Community Food Pantry; an intern with the American Red Cross; the Special Events and Public Relations Intern with Make-A-Wish Wisconsin; and various other organizations such as the United Way, Door CANcer, the YMCA, Community Blood Center…the list goes on!

However, one of her greatest accomplishments has been her position as the Founder, President, and CEO of Operation Not Alone. Although this is a pretty important role, Susan thinks “Head Blanket-Making Director” or “Care Package Extraordinaire” describes her position more accurately.

Operation Not Alone – Never Alone. Never Forget.

“At Operation Not Alone, we strive to give our service men and women the utmost support and encouragement by sending very unique and heartwarming care packages to our nation’s bravest,” Susan said. “All of our packages are put together with tremendous care and love. Every service member will receive a handmade fleece blanket specific to his or her branch of service in the military, much needed supplies to use during deployment, and a slew of cards and letters from all types of community members.”

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Operation Not Alone (ONA for short) also has a Cheer Package program, which is sent every year around Veterans Day to brave veterans.

“Our goal is to make sure that no one feels alone during the deployment and beyond, and that each and every service member comes home to warm and open arms. No one will be forgotten and our nation’s bravest will feel our continuous gratitude,” Susan said.

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From the Beginning…

Susan has always been a service driven person, before she even knew a term like that existed.

“I remember doing things in elementary school with my friends, like hosting fundraisers or supply drives for the tsunami victims, planting trees, cleaning up highways, etc. because that’s what I genuinely wanted to do.”

Her biggest catalyst to furthering that service was when she became involved in the Wisconsin Leadership Seminars as a sophomore in high school.

“It was the first time I was truly surrounded by motivating, driven and inspiring individuals who were all trying to find their and make their place in the world. From there, I figured out how to reach out to more organizations to start volunteering!”

Then, as a senior in high school, her life would change forever as she embarked on her first Miss America Organization experience.

Susan and the Miss America Organization

“I took the community service platform very seriously and thought about what I wanted to do in my community and wake up every single morning to advocate for. Something surrounding supporting our troops was the simplest decision to make when I walked home that day and looked at my dad,” Susan said. Susan’s father is a United States Marine Corps veteran.

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After she knew she wanted to have a platform surrounding military support, her ambition grew immensely.

“When I got to college and spoke with my sorority sisters about my passions for competing in the Miss America Organization and supporting our troops, they encouraged me to make the largest the difference I could – founding a non-profit organization,” Susan said.

In the last four and a half years of Operation Not Alone, Susan is so proud of the impact that the team of volunteers (aka – the ONA Family) has been able to make.

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“We’ve got over 500 service members and veterans in our database of Care and Cheer Packages and we’ve been able to visit countless children and classrooms to raise awareness to ensure that no service member is ‘ever alone and never forgotten,'” Susan said. “The ONA Family is certainly unmatched and there are larger projects on the horizon!”

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Greatest Takeaways

Susan reminds everyone to remember the people who were with you during your failures, not just your celebrations.

Anything is possible if you surround yourself with the right people. Find your village, the people who help to push you to become the best possible version of yourself and wholeheartedly have your back,” Susan said.

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In the words of our sensational Miss America 2017, Savvy Shields, “Find a ‘why’ that is not about yourself. Whatever your goals or dreams are, whatever your ‘why’ is, I am a firm believer that our second, or even our third reason ‘why’ should all be the same. If you know ‘why,’ you can endure any ‘how.'”

“Don’t ever take anything or anyone for granted and say ‘thank you’ as often as you can. Oh, and Google is basically my best friend. All hail the power of Google being at our fingertips,” Susan said.

*insert hands-up praise emoji*

How to Get Involved

For more information regarding Operation Not Alone, visit http://www.operationnotalone.net or feel free to send an email to operationnotaloneinc@gmail.com and keep your eyes peeled on their Facebook page for event updates. ONA’s largest volunteer event will take place during the first week of November.

“PLEASE send us the names, branches and addresses of active duty service members and veterans to add to our database!”

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Susan is quite honestly one of the greatest examples when it comes to GEMS. She is truly a Girl Empowered and Motivated to Serve! Thank you for all you do, Susan! You inspire so many to chase their dreams and make their communities a better place.

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Shining GEMS: Brittany Moncrief

In 2016, a program called “GEMS- Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve” was born. I saw a need for positive female role models in our communities to influence, encourage, and inspire the youngest generation of leaders. As a contestant in the Miss America Organization, I aimed to create a community of strong, powerful girls who wish to make a difference. As I go on the road to host GEMS workshops and share a love for service with others, I decided to feature MORE amazing women who also dedicate their time and talents toward making their communities a better place.

To kick off this blog series, I am so excited to introduce Brittany Moncrief.

Brittany is a recent graduate of Winona State University with a degree in Special Education Developmental Disabilities and a minor in Dance. She recently accepted a position as a special education teacher at Winona Senior High School. From St. Paul, Minnesota, Brittany is also a dancer and power lifter, teaching fitness classes, dance classes, and choreography. Fun fact: She is also a former Miss Winona and competed at the Miss Minnesota Scholarship Pageant last year.

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Brittany has also been involved with the American Cancer Society and Special Olympics for many years now. Here is her experience:

Brittany and the American Cancer Society

The American Cancer Society is dedicated to eliminating, preventing, and helping those battling cancer through research, education, advocacy and service. In fact, their motto is driven from the idea of having a world with more birthdays. She has held positions like Chair of Social Media, Team Captain, Committee Member, and participant with Relay for Life over the past 9 years.

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“I got involved with the American Cancer Society, specifically their Relay for Life events, when I was in eighth grade. My sister was the captain of her Relay team and invited my mom and I to come to the event,” Brittany said. She and her mom have now attended over fifteen events in the state of Minnesota and have raised over $5,000 for the American Cancer Society. “We won’t stop Relaying until cancer stops first!”

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Brittany chose to get started with the American Cancer Society as a way for she and her family to bond and fight cancer.

“We have family friends who have fought cancer. Some beat it and some did not. We now make it a tradition to attend at least one event a year and pay our honor and tributes to those who have had to hear the words, ‘you have cancer.'”

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“I’ve learned that cancer puts up one heck of a fight. It’s the hardest battle to beat, but because of donors and research, there will be a cure one day,” Brittany said.

When she was Miss Winona, Brittany used to write a “Survivor of the Month” column to honor a special survivor. “There is nothing quite like a community that’s full of mutual hatred….a hatred for cancer!”

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Brittany and Special Olympics

Special Olympics is centered around giving children and adults with different kinds of disabilities the opportunity to train and compete in various events. This allows them to have the chance to work on physical fitness, teamwork, courage, and experiencing an exciting event. Brittany has volunteered and helped her students at Special Olympics for the past two years.

She started volunteering with Special Olympics two years ago when she was in her field placement to become a Special Education teacher.

“My students were involved with the Olympics event that Winona hosts every year for surrounding communities. I am now a high school teacher and plan to bring my students to the event to participate every spring.”

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Brittany chose to get involved in Special Olympics because she wanted to see her students participating in team and individual events.

“I wanted to be able to see their confidence grow throughout the years with me as their teacher.”

Through Special Olympics, Brittany learned that any single body is capable of anything.

“Just because my student is labeled with a disability doesn’t mean they can’t do something, it means they do things differently than most people,” Brittany said. “My students are successfully able to turn the word disability into DIS-ABILITY!”

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Do you want to get involved with the American Cancer Society or Special Olympics like Brittany? Follow the links below!

ACS: https://secure.acsevents.org/site/SPageServer/?pagename=relay_find_event

Special Olympics: http://www.specialolympics.org/Sections/Get_Involved/Get_Involved.aspx?src=navinvolved

How To: Pageant Hair

It’s time to get fabulous!

I’ve gotten plenty of requests to write a blog article or even post a video about how I curl my hair for pageants and appearances. I finally found a little down time to go full glam, which is definitely not an everyday process. In fact, the most exhausting part of Miss Wisconsin week was waking up 2-3 hours early just to do hair and makeup…You can usually find me in athletic shorts and flip flops with unwashed hair wrapped up in a ponytail, so this post is a real treat for y’all.

Every girl does their hair a little differently for the stage, but this is just what works for me and my hair type! Feel free to experiment with different products and techniques to get the look you want. Here’s how I do it:

Collect your materials. I’m not a big fan of fancy and expensive hair and makeup products because I’ve found that anything from the drugstore works just fine if you look hard enough. All of these products can be found at Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, or any other drugstore:

  • Big Sexy Hair Big Altitude Bodifying Blow Dry Mousse (optional)
  • TRESemme Thermal Creations Heat Tamer Spray
  • Psssst! Instant Dry Shampoo
  • Big Sexy Hair Spray & Play Hairspray
  • Wide tooth comb
  • Teasing brush (Goody, Conair, etc.)
  • 3/4 inch Revlon curling iron
  • Remington hot rollers (20 pc.)

 

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Step 1: Prepare the hair

Weeks before your event: ask your stylist to cut in lots of layers, especially face-framing layers. This will allow your curls to swoop back, softly frame your face and emphasize your features.

The day before your event: Shower and wash your hair with any volumizing shampoo and conditioner. TIP: When washing your hair, condition FIRST to protect the ends and then shampoo AFTER to wash it away. I’ve found this backwards technique keeps my hair softer and healthier. After your shower, let your hair air dry like I do, or use a small amount of blow dry mousse before using a hair dryer. Then, put your hair up on top of your head in a loose bun when you sleep. This draws the hair follicles UP, creating more volume.

Step 2: Prep and protect

On the day of your event, use a wide tooth comb to brush out day-old hair. TIP: Start brushing from the ends FIRST to prevent breakage and split ends. Once the ends are untangled, work your way up. Finally, spray a heat tamer spray  from your ears down to protect the ends of your hair from frying and splitting.

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Step 3: Divide and conquer

After your hair is tangle free and protected from the heat, separate your hair about two inches above your ears and tie off the top section with a clip or hair tie.

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Then, grab your dry shampoo and spray the roots. TIP: When working with day-old hair, or if you hair gets greasy easily, dry shampoo is a life saver to give you more texture and volume, making it look cleaner! Let it sit for a minute and then massage your scalp to work it in. Next, grab your teasing brush and tease at the roots.

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Finally, split your hair one more time down the middle so you now have two even sections to work with.

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Step 4: Curl, curl, curl

Notice that I use a curling iron that has a clamp on it, but instead of using the clamp, I use it like a wand. Clamps on curling irons tend to make kinks in the ends of the hair, and wands are usually smaller at the bottom, creating a strange shaped curl. I decided to go for the best of both worlds and just use this method of ignoring the clamp. When curling the left side of my head, hold the curling iron in your right hand and work with your left hand, like so:

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I usually take pretty small sections, maybe an inch or two in size. Taking too much hair onto the curling iron will prevent the hair from heating evenly, causing your curls to fall flat faster! Also, make sure you always curl AWAY from your face to create the most flattering and voluminous look. TIP: Keep the hair laying flat against the barrel of the curling iron so it comes out looking like a ribbon.

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Switch and repeat on the right side of your head until it’s all curled. Hairspray LIGHTLY.

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Step 5: Divide and repeat

Once the bottom layer is done, let down another section of hair from your clip. Now, only the crown of your hair should be tied up.

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Spray the roots with dry shampoo again, let sit, massage it in with your fingers, and tease once again before curling.

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TIP: Tease ALL layers of your hair for the most volume. Lots of girls only tease the top layer of their hair, but if you want it to stay big all day, start teasing from the very first section. Now, repeat the same curling process, curling away from your face in small sections. Once this layer is all done, spray lightly with a medium hold hairspray, and your base is complete.

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Step 6: Roll It Up

Now that you have a solid base of curls using the curling iron/wand technique (came up with that term myself), plug in some hot rollers. (This is totally optional and something I usually only use for pageants. For an easier everyday look, you can continue the technique using a curling iron if you’d like!)

Since I have very long, thick, layered hair, I NEVER have enough rollers to cover my whole head! Instead of buying a second set of rollers, I resorted to using my trusty curling iron on most of my hair and only using a handful of rollers to finish up. This means more volume on top and around my face (perfect for the stage).

Once your rollers are heated up, take out the top section of your hair and divide it into one-inch sections, starting from the back.

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For this part, I spray dry shampoo at the roots AND I also use a little bit of hairspray at the roots as well.

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Then, tease like crazy!

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Next, take small sections and start putting in the rollers. THIS TAKES PRACTICE. TIP: If you plan on doing your hair with rollers for a special event, PRACTICE before the big day! The last thing you want is to be struggling with them when you’re on a time limit. Like we did with the curling iron, curl your rollers away from your face, too!

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Continue taking small sections, spraying, teasing, and rolling them up until it’s all gone. Feel free to take a few pieces from the sides by your ears as well. Now, spritz with a little bit of hairspray and wait! Be sure to wait until they are cool to touch before taking them out (mine usually takes 20-30 mins…perfect time to start your makeup).

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Side note… If you lose your roller pins/clips all the time like I do, giant hair clips usually work just fine and they are 100x more fashionable…(sarcasm). Believe me, I’ve used clothespins, bobby pins, and even held them all in with my hands for a half hour when I lose my roller pins..

Step 7: Roll On Out

Once your rollers are cooled down, carefully unroll them…DO NOT just pull them out, it’ll ruin your curls! It’ll look a little strange, and the curls from before and the new ones from your rollers will look a little different. Don’t worry, we’ll fix them!

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Take a section from the side of your hair and spray roots with hairspray and tease like crazy until it can stand up on its own.

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Continue this step for all top and side sections until your hair looks a little like this:

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Now, let the hairspray dry and gently smooth out the teasing mess with your comb. The top will be smooth and voluminous.

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Then, touch up your curls with the curling iron so the ones from earlier and the new roller curls blend together and look the same. Do not spray all your hair yet..

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Step 8: Brushing for Backflips

BUT WAIT, you’re not done. Sure, it looks just fine now and you could be done here, but we can do better! Take your wide tooth comb and brush out the ends of your hair from your ears down ONLY. Don’t comb out the top! TIP: Brushing out your curls gives you more volume and prevents your curls from looking too structured and crunchy.

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Once your curls are gently brushed, flip your head over, shake it out, and spray all over. I usually scrunch it up a little too, but that step is optional. Now, keep your head flipped over and tease the back of your head.

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AND NOW, flip it back over, smooth it out to the way you like it, touch up any fallen curls, and SPRAY SPRAY SPRAY. TIP: Make sure you’re using a medium hold hairspray for final touches. Using one that’s too flexible won’t hold your volume and and one that is too heavy will weigh down your curls and make them crunchy.

VOILA! Here is the final product!

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Again, this is a pretty extensive process that I usually only use for the stage. For everyday curls, I’ll use the same process, but without rollers. Now you know!

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below or contact me using the information on the “About Me” tab.

Fun fact: I LOVE doing hair and makeup for special events. If you’d like to have me do your hair or makeup for homecoming, prom, pageant, or any other occasion, contact me! I’d love to send some examples of my previous work and have the chance to be a part of your special day.

Now get out there and be fabulous.

Love always,

Jessica

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Meet Jade Strick: National American Miss Wisconsin 2015

Time to get back into blogging mode (as I sip tea from my new “blogging day” mug from my wonderful pageant director). Speaking of, there are TONS of pageant organizations out there, from Miss USA, to Miss America, to National American Miss and beyond. Each program is a little different, but they all offer so many life changing opportunities for the women involved.

Back in December of 2015, I was connected to Miss Jade Strick through a mutual acquaintance. I thought it would be a fun idea to collaborate with her on an article about the impact of pageant involvement and how her experiences have shaped her life thus far. This Q & A was conducted through a previous interview she did for a friend, but her answers are spot on! Jade has been involved in the National American Miss program for a few years now and she is currently a NAM titleholder and director for the Miss Amazing program, empowering girls with disabilities. Meet Jade…

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Q: You’re very involved in the pageant industry, could you please explain any pageants or organizations you’ve participated in? Also any titles you’ve won over your pageant career?

A: I have been involved in the National American Miss pageant system. NAM is the largest pageant system in the United States. It is a more “family oriented” system and their staff refers to it as a “confidence pageant” rather than a beauty pageant. The areas of competition are personal introduction, interview, formal wear, and community service.  This is the only system I have competed in so far but I am very familiar with other systems and hope to compete in the Miss USA organization. I currently hold the title of National American Miss Wisconsin 2015 and placed 4th runner up at the national pageant.

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Q: There are many controversies over whether minors should be allowed to participate in pageants. What is your opinion on this?

A: There’s a huge difference between organizations like National American Miss and what you see on Toddlers & Tiaras. National American Miss doesn’t allow younger contestants to wear makeup and it isn’t judged on outer appearance whatsoever. I completely advocate for younger girls participating in pageants like this if it is something they want to try! Beauty pageants, on the other hand, I do not agree with. I would never allow my daughter to participate in anything like what you see on Toddlers & Tiaras.

Q: Are there any ways participating in pageants has positively influenced your life? Anything negative?

A: Pageants have been extremely influential in my life. I first competed in National American Miss when I was 16 years old and it felt like I found my home, my “thing,” if you will. I was never good at sports and I tried and quit countless other activities. When I competed in NAM, I immediately fell in love. I placed in the Top 10 in my first pageant and knew I found my “thing.” When I came back to school in the fall, I felt like a different person. I was always somewhat introverted, not that it’s a bad thing, but the pageant definitely helped bring me out of my shell. I was more eager to speak in front of the class and talk to new people. It also lead me to getting much more involved in volunteer work. I saw the amazing things my fellow competitors were doing and that gave me the confidence to believe that I could make a difference too. I started with Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the Miss Amazing program a few months later. I would have never had the confidence in myself to be able to direct and lead a statewide organization like Miss Amazing if it weren’t for my experience with National American Miss.

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I think the only negative experience I had with NAM was the final year I competed in the teen division; I was very competitive and put way too much pressure on myself to win. I really didn’t enjoy myself that weekend and ended up messing up my personal introduction and bawling my eyes out when I didn’t win. This really wasn’t a negative experience, it was a lesson.  The lessons I learned that weekend contributed to my amazing week competing at nationals this past year. Of course I would have loved to win, but I did my best, didn’t put pressure on myself, and had fun. It is for that reason that I placed in the Top 5!

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Q: You are very involved in the Miss Amazing program. Could you explain what it is, your role, and how it has influenced the participants’ lives?

A: Miss Amazing is a non-profit organization that gives girls and women with disabilities the opportunity to gain confidence and self esteem in a supportive environment. The founder of Miss Amazing was a National American Miss queen in Nebraska, who designed the pageant to be similar to NAM. I am Wisconsin’s state director, so I am in charge of our program for the whole state. I plan the annual state pageants, which consist of finding a venue, fundraising, promoting the program to get participants and volunteers, and planning all the details that go into the event. I also work with the families of the six queens to get them to the National Miss Amazing pageant and help them get into the community for appearances and volunteer work. Recently, I took on a new role in the planning committee for the national event as well.

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Miss Amazing has hugely influenced participants across the United States. I’ve witnessed it having the same impact on the girls and women who participate as National American Miss did on me.  It is really empowering for the participants to have their time in the spotlight– their time to feel beautiful. I could tell you so many stories. One of my favorite stories is about a girl named Sarah. When I first met Sarah, she was sitting backstage waiting to practice for the talent showcase. My mom pulled me aside from my busy errands and asked me to talk to a really nervous participant. I dropped everything and sat down next to this terrified young lady. I tried to get Sarah to talk to me, but she could barely even look at me. Finally, her mom came back and mentioned that I looked like a character from her favorite TV show, Victorious. That sparked her interest and we finally got some smiles, laughs, and a few words out of her. I asked her if she was ready to go practice, but she wouldn’t budge. Finally, we got her to just stand on the stage. She didn’t practice her talent, she wouldn’t even wave to the small crowd, she just stepped on stage. Her talent was decorating cupcakes and when it came to the final show, I went on the stage with her and helped her do her talent. The next day, I saw her confidence slowly growing and the real Sarah was coming out. Sarah was quirky, funny, and had a contagious smile. The final show came around and Sarah walked across the stage in her red ball gown, flashing that contagious smile and waving to the crowd. My heart was beaming with pride, as she ended up winning her age division and she became the Wisconsin Miss Amazing Teen. I saw the transformation as Sarah grew into a confident young lady and I couldn’t have been more proud of her.

Q: What is your favorite Miss Amazing memory?

A: If you haven’t noticed, when it comes to Miss Amazing, I could write novels for you.  There are so many memories and stories. One thing that stands out for me was at the end of the second pageant I held. The first one was very small and had only 3 participants and a handful of volunteers. The second one had almost 20 contestants and around 50 volunteers. The show was over and I lead all the girls onstage for a final bow and photos. As I turned, the crowd was on their feet and one of the participants brought me a bouquet of flowers. I immediately started crying because I was so exhausted, but all that hard work paid off in that one moment. That feeling is something I will never forget.

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Q: Has participating in pageants changed your outlook on the world and/or life? If so, how?

A: I’m not sure that they’ve changed my outlook, but they have empowered me to feel that I can make an impact on the world.  They’ve empowered me to be a leader. I am a more confident person because of my experiences with pageants and I am forever grateful for everything I’ve learned.

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Jessica’s reflections…

Thank you for sharing your stories, Jade! Although we do not compete in the same organizations, I definitely connect with many of the experiences Jade has had through her involvement as well. I can honestly say that the Miss America Organization has also allowed me to gain public speaking skills, interviewing skills, scholarship dollars, stage presence, confidence in myself and my abilities, and connections within the community through service opportunities. It is because of these skills learned through preparing for and participating in pageants that I feel empowered to make a change. I encourage all young women to try at least one pageant, whether it be with Miss America, National American Miss, Miss USA, etc. It’s time to end the stigma around pageantry.

Love always,
Jessica