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.

Why Invest In Girls?

Growing up, I thought I understood the meaning of the phrase “girl power.” We hear it all the time; be strong, be confident, stand up for yourself, do whatever you set your mind to.

Although this all still rings true, my understanding of “girl power” has changed over time. As I grew up a little, developed my own opinions, beliefs, and values, I began to encounter some experiences that allowed me to truly understand what it means to be a girl.

From the Very Beginning…

There is no denying that women have faced many challenges over the course of history, and for minority women, these challenges are even greater. From the battle for women’s suffrage in 1919 to the fight for paid maternity leave (and more) today, there have been many big steps taken, but there are still many huge steps to go, regardless of political stance. I think fighting for human rights and opportunities is something we can all get behind.

Rewind to 2014, when I first got involved in the Miss America Organization. This new experience required me to study social issues and public policy to prepare for my pageant interviews and onstage questions. To expand my knowledge, I started following news sources, public figures, and political leaders. I started to develop an interest in the important issues and make connections regarding how these issues affect me, my friends, family, other young women, and even strangers. We are ALL affected by what happens around us, even if they may seem like the smallest matters in our personal lives.

I learned that there are so many people worldwide without access to basic needs, like food, water, shelter, or healthcare. These people may even be our neighbors. Additionally, there are some people around the world (by some, I mean MILLIONS) who long for education or safety in their own communities. Many of these people are girls and women.

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I know what you may be thinking, “What about boys and men?” Of course boys and men are also crucial parts of our society! I’ll always be an advocate for the success of both men and women. Both populations contribute highly to our communities. However, for my mission specifically, I wanted to target young girls and women because I recognize a need for programs for girls to be involved in, from a local to global level.

Starting a Brainstorm…

From here, the Miss America Organization encouraged me to form an opinion on EVERYTHING, which motivated me to start conversations and apply things that I enjoy toward making a difference. I’ve always enjoyed lifting up other girls and women, encouraging them to believe in their dreams and shoot for the stars and beyond. However, I wanted to do more. How could I make a change with this passion of mine?

One day, I was working on expanding my Miss America Organization platform (a pageant “platform” is an issue or cause I am passionate about and wish to promote as a contestant). I simply Googled, “ways to help girls around the world” and “nonprofit organizations for girls.” This is when I discovered Girl Up, a movement created by the United Nations Foundation, which aims to empower girls to advocate for the safety, health, and education of other girls worldwide, specifically in developing nations. I fell in love with this mission and became a community advocate for Girl Up.

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Photo from: GirlUp.org

“When girls are empowered, it benefits all of us. Investing in girls is key to reducing poverty: Girls who receive an education marry later, have fewer children, and are more likely to get healthcare for themselves and their children. Every year of schooling increases a girl’s future earnings by 10-20%.” –Girl Up (HIGHLY encourage everyone to check out this link and this campaign)

During the course of the next few years, I also took on a few new jobs and internships, earned a local MAO title, met many influential community members, made friends, lost friends, and gained a new understanding of who I am and what I want to be.

This is when I decided that, although empowering girls worldwide is something I am so passionate about, I want direct my focus a little closer to home. I started blogging here and there (writing has always been another fun hobby of mine) and I began to really think about ways to make an impact and how I can use my voice.

This is when I published To Today’s 14 Year-Old Girls, a message from myself to a younger population of girls. Never in a million years did I anticipate this article reaching so many people and generating as much feedback as it did. I got messages from girls, parents, community members, and leaders, racking up over 800,000 views. I knew, at this point, that I was capable of using my voice to make changes.

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This time in my life between 2014 and 2017 is when I began to discover what I’m meant to do and who I was made to become. When I was young, being a girl meant following the rules, fitting into a mold made by society, growing up to be a wife and mother…the usual. Today, being a girl and WOMAN means I have the voice to speak and the power to act. I get to choose my own destiny, and it’s okay if it’s not the norm. I’ve developed the confidence to form my own opinions and beliefs, and I firmly believe that every girl is capable of that as well.

Taking Action…

In this day and age, nobody is afraid to share those opinions and beliefs. However, how often do we see people physically standing up for what they believe in? ACTING on their opinions and beliefs? Going out and MAKING THE CHANGE they so openly spew about on social media? Hardly.

People, young and old, continue to want change to happen, but instead of stepping up, they are guarded by lack of motivation, confidence, leadership skills, or knowledge on where to begin. The reasons are endless.

This is where I wanted to step in.

We NEED more people to use their passions and interests to make positive changes, starting right here at home. I found that my passion lies in empowering girls, so I decided to make my mark that way. This is when GEMS- Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve was born.

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A group of Girl Scouts participating in a GEMS workshop with me.

Rooted in the importance of service and community involvement, GEMS is a program I wanted to develop (with generous assistance from some wonderful, motivated women in my life). GEMS offers workshops for girls to learn about motivation, confidence, and empowerment. The program allows them to discover their true purpose and take on a service project of their own, depending on their own unique passions and talents.

By creating a positive, safe environment for girls, I’ve found that they feel more comfortable being open about their passions and dreams, as well as their insecurities and concerns. It’s crucial to provide a space for girls, young and old, to connect, learn, and flourish.

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Crafting at a GEMS workshop

GEMS is just getting started, but this has been my way of putting my own skills, passions, and motivation to positive use. GEMS is just a stepping stone toward a future of strong, empowered girls who aim to be the next generation of leaders. By understanding my voice and the impact I can make, I chose to fuel my fire by researching ways I can make my mark and creating a community of people who are just as motivated as I am. It only takes one spark to start a wildfire.

It’s Your Turn…

I invest in girls because I believe girls are the future. We need more girls taking on leadership roles and influencing communities, government, and beyond. Growing up, I thought I understood the meaning of the phrase “girl power.” We hear it all the time; be strong, be confident, stand up for yourself, do whatever you set your mind to.

Today, “girl power” to me means recognizing your true worth as a woman, taking control of your own life by exploring the things you’re passionate about, taking advantage of the opportunities that are given to you, appreciating the privileges that women before you fought for, standing up for girls worldwide, and fighting for opportunities you may not have yet.

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“Be the change you want to see in the world” is a paraphrased quote from Gandhi, but many people don’t know that the full quote delivers a much deeper message:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

It is within us to understand our true value and capabilities as humans. Once we are able to do this, we can reflect that out to the world. From here, the world will also change to reflect us. Go out and do what sets your soul on fire.

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Love always,

Jessica

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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Que Sera, Sera

 

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Photo by: Leah LaLiberte (@haelmaee)

Whatever will be, will be.

Lately, this has been a lesson I’ve dedicated a lot of time to. I recently turned 21, I just finished up my junior year of college, and I’m hitting the ground running in this game called young adulthood. Internships, resume building, job searching, graduation planning, big life decisions, pageants on pageants on pageants, scraping pennies from underneath my car’s floor mats just to pay rent… I want to kick my 6 year-old self for wanting to grow up so quickly. Screw you, little Jess.

In times when I find myself stressed to the max, I remind myself, “whatever will be, will be.” My grandma mentioned this phrase a while ago and I felt inspired to blog about it, because there have been some recent events in my life that sparked well-needed reflection time.

Just a few days ago, I called my mom on my way home, gasping for words to explain that I’m a sobbing anxious mess, and when this happens, she usually says something along the lines of:

“Calm down, everything is fine, relax.”

This is something I hear pretty often from my parents, close friends, and boyfriend because most people who know me well enough would know that I’m naturally an anxious person.

No kidding, Jess, everyone knows this by now.

I find comfort in knowing what to expect, being under control, and always having a plan. I have a hard time accepting failure and I get down on myself when I fail to reach my fullest potential. I expect nothing less than excellence from myself, but that tends to be very difficult to maintain some days. In short, this element of my personality has been tested lately.

Some things that have happened in my life recently are incredible blessings, but it took me a while to understand that every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being re-directed to something better. In the wise words of Kylie Jenner, sometimes it takes a little bit of “just, like, realizing things.”

Over the past five months, I’ve had the opportunity to compete four times for another local title within the Miss America Organization. Any woman who has been involved in pageants understands that competing is incredibly challenging on a mental and emotional level. We all work SO hard to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network, build up our platforms, organize events, practice our talents, get our swimsuit bods ready for the stage, study current events, and somehow fit in some time to find ourselves, too. There are many highs and lows with tears of happiness, frustration, and gratitude. Of the four times I competed this year, I placed first runner-up three times. Quite honestly, this was SUCH an honor, but I didn’t think so at the time. I admit I was very frustrated, disappointed that I couldn’t measure up to what I expected of myself, and just falling short of a spot at Miss Wisconsin this year.

However, looking back now, I know that there are things I can improve on to bring the best Jess back to the stage next year. God planned something else for me, and being a titleholder this year just wasn’t in the plan, so I had to understand that something better must lie ahead. Being first runner-up THREE times in the same year is an amazing accomplishment that I am so proud of today, and I couldn’t have made it that far without the support of my family and friends, along with my “pageant family” of directors, sisters, judges and mentors. The scholarships I’ve received, the people I’ve connected with, and the things that I’ve learned over the past five months are truly priceless. I just had to remember that whatever will be, will be. There is always another door open ahead.

That door opened right in front of me at the beginning of April, when I was chosen to interview for not one, but TWO big internships. I was truly convinced that this HAD to be the “something better ahead” that I was hoping for. I polished up my resume, collected samples of past work, researched both companies, and prepared for my interviews as best as I could. The funny thing about job interviews is that they feel like a piece of cake compared to pageant interviews. They’re essentially very similar, just without the politics, current events, and platform questions that exist in a pageant interview. For this internship interview, I knew that I had to sell myself, my goals and accomplishments, and let the interviewers know that I was the best candidate for the job, just like in a pageant interview.

I walked out of my first interview feeling confident and accomplished, until I opened my email inbox a few days later:

“Thank you for taking the time to interview for a summer internship with _________. We are contacting you to inform you that you have not been selected for the position…”

*Insert sigh and eye roll here*

UGH! Of course, I was bummed, but I had to keep in mind that I still had another chance to interview for another important internship just a week later. Back to square one, and round two came along quickly. Again, I felt very confident and happy with my conversations with the interviewers at the second interview. I (im)patiently waited for a response, and a few days later, I opened my email inbox again and saw:

“Thank you for taking the time to interview for a summer internship with _________. We are contacting you to inform you that you have not been selected for the position…”

AGAIN?! UGH x2. At this point, I was feeling pretty low. I began to doubt myself and my capabilities. What was so great about the other candidates? My interview went so well, why didn’t they pick me? Rejection sucks, but it’s something we will all face multiple times. I didn’t get that job for a good reason, and it’ll take some time for me to understand what exactly that reason was. As grandma always says, “whatever will be, will be.” I had to trust that.

After a few setbacks, I also have some pretty beautiful things happening as well. Just a couple weeks after the double internship rejection, another door opened and I was offered the opportunity to work with a nonprofit foundation, managing social media outreach and learning the ropes for a potential career path in nonprofit PR. Because of this experience, I’ve gained some wonderful references and a continued love for my education in communication and public relations.

Additionally, I have been able to dedicate more time to things that make me genuinely happy. I started painting again, I’ve been making time to see friends, I decided to chaperone a mission trip this summer, I’ve been finding ways to manage my anxiety on the tough days, and I’ve been brainstorming some new ideas for GEMS (stay tuned, big announcement coming at the end of the summer)!

Over the past few months, I’ve learned that striving for perfection (though near impossible) is okay, as long as I remain realistic and understanding of alternative outcomes. I may not be going back to Miss Wisconsin this summer, I may have been rejected from two big internships, and I may still struggle some days with anxiety, BUT I’ve learned that success is not a straight line, humility and grace are crucial parts of being whole, failure is a natural part of life, and sometimes I have to let go and let God.

Whatever will be, will be. Que sera, sera. Might as well tattoo that one on my body.

Just remember that regardless of what you may be battling, there is ALWAYS something beautiful waiting for you ahead. It may not be what you want at the time, but God knows it’s what you need.

Love always,

Jessica

Life on Lexapro: 15 Weeks

“God gave you this life because He knew you were strong enough to live it.”

I’ve had a few people ask how things have been going since I last posted about life on Lexapro (thank you, I appreciate it) and I must say, I’ve seen some changes.

When I took my first dose on October 29th, 2016, I thought it might change me dramatically right away. Part of me believed I would immediately be calm, collected, and more focused on the important stuff in my life, rather than the small things I’d feel anxious about every day. Over time, I’ve found that this could be true, but I had to be patient.

When I was first prescribed, my doctor said I would see changes between 3 and 4 months of using Lexapro, but it might even take up to 8 months to notice the full effects. I was VERY impatient at first. I wanted to be cured! I didn’t want to feel so upset and on edge all the time. I thought this stuff was going to fix it!

Wrong. Since Lexapro is a SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), my body has to get used to it over time, so I don’t see the therapeutic effects of it right away. It’s something I can use long-term without horrible side effects if I choose to stop using it someday. Other drugs, such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan, are benzodiazepines (“benzos” for short), which calm you down almost instantly. THIS is the relief I initially wanted, but I realized these aren’t the right kinds of medications for the type of anxiety I was dealing with.

The cool thing about managing anxiety is that there are lots of different options to treat it. If one medication isn’t working for me, there are plenty more medications I can try with the help of my doctor. If one kind of therapy isn’t working, I can try something else, like yoga or art therapy. The possibilities really are endless, so if you’ve been dealing with anxiety and/or depression, always know that there ARE many different options to help you. Don’t be afraid to try new things that might be good for you!

While I was struggling with the test of time until my medicine would take effect, I tried to find some things that could help me focus in the mean time. I started taking time to read, color, journal, paint, or listen to music. I made a daily schedule and to-do lists to keep myself occupied. I set aside specific times to do homework, study, eat, clean, go to club meetings, relax, etc. I slowly began to realize that keeping myself busy and active really alleviated some of my anxiety.

By the time Thanksgiving break rolled around (about 4-6 weeks on Lexapro), I was seeing some very minor changes. Mind you, my doctor said it would probably be 3-4 months before I would notice the positive effects. However, things were changing. I noticed some mood swings, I’d still have good days and bad days, and I started feeling more emotional (my boyfriend can definitely confirm this). I felt a little bit of nausea, but with a few changes in my diet and by taking my medicine in the morning after breakfast, this was easily fixed. I also began feeling VERY tired. This is a pretty common side effect for many people, so I almost had to expect this one. The first month or two was a lot of trial and error and adjustment.

By Christmas (two months on Lexapro), I was starting to feel more adjusted and in control. I’d still feel anxious at times, but I wasn’t having the constant “on-edge” feeling like I used to have. That continuous little voice in my head slowly began to fade away. However, the true test would be when winter break was over and the new semester began. Like most of us, I feel most comfortable and at-ease when I’m home with my family, so during my winter break, I wasn’t sure if my medicine was really working or if this was just the usual relaxed feeling I always had while I was home. At this point, I was excited but also a little anxious to see how I would feel once I moved back to my apartment for spring semester. Things were looking up, but I was remaining patient.

Today, I am approaching 16 weeks on Lexapro, and by the end of February, I’ll be at my 4 month mark. I’m about four weeks into the spring semester and I’m feeling better than ever! Some of the more recent changes I’ve noticed are the positive ones. No more rapid heartbeat and dizziness, no more anxious nausea, better sleep at night, easier to get up in the morning. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a panic attack, which makes me one happy camper.

The weirdest part of this is that I still feel anxious at times (more anxious than the average person because that’s how life with GAD goes), but I feel like my brain and body are able to manage it much better. I am still able to recognize what makes me anxious, but it’s almost as if my brain just doesn’t care as much. I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t, I know that sometimes I feel better when I’m alone, and sometimes I feel better when I’m busy with other people. Lexapro hasn’t cured my anxiety, but it has given me the little 10 milligram daily dose of serotonin that my brain needs to function properly.

Overall, I’m very excited to continue seeing changes in my health and attitude. I’m excited to keep exploring new things and discover more methods of therapy that make me happy (so far, I LOVE journaling and painting). THANK YOU to my friends and family for being so patient and supportive as I handle this adjustment. To those who are struggling with GAD, other types of anxiety, depression, or anything similar, feel free to comment or reach out to me on social media (see my “About Me” tab for information). I’m always happy to offer a helping hand or simply just be an outlet for you share anything without judgement. We’re all in this life together.

Love always,

Jessica

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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Put Your Big Kid Pants On

“I don’t wanna grow up,” says every young adult ever. Adulting is hard and I’m quickly beginning to realize this as I enter my junior year of college. Money is ALWAYS tight, $5 feels like $100, and I’m ready to accept the fact that I will probably be scraping pennies for the rest of my 20’s…Or maybe not, if I make financial responsibility a priority. After speaking with financial experts, I came up with a handful of goals I hope to accomplish as I enter my 20’s. While being an adult is fun and independence feels great, it’s always good to keep an eye on the future, especially when it comes to financial independence. Here is a culmination of my “adult checklist,” including some serious goals and a few fun goals, along with a little bit of my own advice for others to get their big kid pants on!

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1. Start saving
I know what you’re thinking… “Jess, you’re 20 years old and you decided to start saving NOW?!” Yeah yeah, I should’ve taken this more seriously a long time ago. Going into my third year of college, I am kicking my 16 year-old self for spending money from my first job on things I really didn’t need. I could’ve traded all the McDonald’s frappes for my first month of rent for my college apartment. According to Personal Capital, 40% of millennials don’t have current plans for retirement, and 73% don’t know their net worth. These things might not have a significant impact on your life right now, but later on they become really important!
My advice? Set savings goals. Determine the major purchases you plan to make in the future and calculate how much you’ll need to save for them. You don’t have to stop spending money all together, but setting aside 10-20% of each paycheck will add up quickly. Setting a clear path and being specific will make it easier to see the bigger picture.

2. Pay off student loans

Student loans…dun dun dunnn. Those two words haunt me in my sleep. In 2013, nearly 70% of college students graduated with debt, averaging $30,000 in student loans each. This causes me a lot of stress and I know the majority of my peers worry about the debt they will also carry after they graduate. Often enough, student loan debt prevents young adults from buying homes and expanding wealth. The sooner you can live debt-free, the better.

My advice? Apply for scholarships, work hard during the summer, and save up for college as early as possible..like from the day you were born.

3. Buy a car

This goes along with the whole saving thing. Currently, I drive my late grandfather’s 2004 Chevy Colorado with a topper on the back, sharing it with my two sisters. As a college student, having my own car isn’t absolutely necessary while living near campus with a public transportation system, but I know that I will soon want a vehicle to call my own.

4. Apply for my dream job

Ahh the famous question… “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’ve all been asked this question (most often at family get-togethers and graduation parties) but as I finish up my final two years of college, it’s important for me to try and figure this one out. College is a time to explore different options and find your niche, so don’t be afraid to shoot for the stars when contemplating what your dream job may be. Even before graduating college, I plan to apply for numerous jobs in my field of interest, even a few jobs that I may not even be qualified for. You never know what might happen!

My advice? Nothing is impossible if you work hard enough for it. Stay focused, do what you love, and take risks.

5. Live on my own

I feel as though I’m in the minority, but I couldn’t wait to move back in with my parents after my freshman year of college. In fact, I spent my sophomore year commuting from home because I couldn’t stand to be far from my family. However, I know I’m finally ready to branch out and do my own thing and I am so excited to have signed a lease to live in my first apartment while away at school. Well, I will have roommates, but baby steps are still steps forward. Within the next two to three years, I hope to have a place of my own, but of course, that requires me to be completely financially independent. We’ll just say I’m working on this one.

My advice? It’s okay to live with your parents while you are saving up. It’s better to be financially unstable while living with mom and dad than be financially unstable all alone with monthly bills to pay. Live with roommates as long as possible to split costs until you can venture off and support yourself.

6. Network like crazy

As a young adult, it’s crucial to go out and meet people, socially and professionally. Every person you meet has something to offer…take advantage of it! People say it’s a good idea to get involved when you go to college and that’s because it can connect you to countless other opportunities. Networking is one of my favorite things to do (partially because I’m a Communication Studies major and partially because I was a social butterfly in a past life).

My advice? Do anything and everything to build up your resume, from charity work and volunteering to internships and first jobs. Find something you love to do and you will be connected to people who feel the same. Don’t be afraid to reach out to potential employers as well! Be a leader, initiate connections, and ALWAYS present yourself professionally.

7. Adopt a pet

I’ve grown up with dogs my entire life so obviously I need some pet therapy when I can get my own place. I’m also the type of person who freaks out when I’m home alone so having a little companion will be a nice addition to my life. I kept a plant alive for over a year in my college dorm room so I have a lot of faith in my care-taking abilities. However, having a real pet of my own is still a big responsibility, so I’m making this one a goal for my later 20’s…

8. Travel

Quite honestly, I’m a bit of a homebody and majority of the time, I’ll choose to stay in with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a good Netflix series over going out all night. During my young adulthood though, I hope to either study abroad or visit a country and immerse myself in the culture. I’ve lived in Wisconsin my entire life and have only traveled outside of the state a handful of times because traveling can get expensive! This is another goal to save up for as much as possible (so be sure to calculate that into your savings goals!) I want to take advantage of the opportunity to travel while I’m young, but the real question is…where to go?

My advice? Spend money on EXPERIENCES rather than material items. Would you rather spend $500 on clothes or $500 on a round trip to a new country? To each their own, but I know it will be so rewarding to save up for a phenomenal life experience and gain a new perspective.

9. Get healthy

Truth is, the “freshman 15” is a real thing. It’s so easy to swing through McDonald’s every day rather than meal prepping with grilled chicken and broccoli, but the payoff of the latter is so much more worth it. I won’t even lie…I eat chicken nuggets and pizza like they’re my only lifeline, but more recently, I’ve been trying to get in touch with what my body needs to be at its best. This includes physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health as well. Most people think health is centered solely on diet and exercise but it is SO much more than that. During my young adulthood, I want to make my overall health a priority because I only get one body so I might as well treat it right.

My advice? This doesn’t have to be difficult! It can be as easy as drinking more water or switching to whole grains. Take time for yourself to rejuvenate, find a fun way to exercise (yoga, walking), and seek beneficial outlets for your stress, like painting, listening to music, meditation or prayer. Discover what makes your body feel good and develop consistency.

10. Prioritize happiness

When I was younger, I spent a lot of my time worrying about what other people wanted from me and how I could make others happy first. After high school, I made the decision to put my happiness first and aim for what I wanted to accomplish for myself, even if I was the odd one out. The term “put others before yourself” is one that I admire, but one that I also don’t believe in 100%. There is such a stigma around focusing on yourself, some may call it selfishness, but this is essential on the path of discovering who you are and what you want to be. While generosity and compassion is one thing, it’s another thing to love yourself and take care of your needs and wants as well. In my young adulthood, as I figure out who I am, I will continue to put my mind, body, and soul first, along with my personal and professional goals. I am going to take the time to invest in my own happiness and success. Life is too short to be anything but happy, so LOVE YOURSELF!

My advice? Don’t be afraid to take the time you need to discover who you are and what you want out of life. Rise above, leave the peer pressure back in middle school, never let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough, and do whatever you need to do to be successful.

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There you have it! Just a handful of my goals as I venture through my 20’s and a little bit of my own advice. I encourage you (the lovely reader) to get your big kid pants on and start making a plan to tackle your future! A little birdy told me that if you write down your goals, they will eventually come true. I’m thinking this adult checklist is a good start! Financial independence is so important and it’s often something we put on the back burner until later in life. Your dreams can become reality simply by taking responsibility of your wallet.

For more information on how you can take charge of your financial independence, check out the wealth management tool provided by the amazing team of financial experts at Personal Capital so you can manage your money and plan for the future! Now go out there and make me proud.

Love always,

Jessica

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