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

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She’s Got That 2018 Mindset

5…4…3…2…1…HAPPY NEW YEAR!

January 1st is one of my favorite days, mainly because I can bust open my brand new 2018 planner. Does anyone else get that same feeling? There’s just something refreshing about a clean slate of another 365 days to fill with an abundance of events and new opportunities. I’m into it.

As we all post our Top 9 on Instagram, reflect on the events of 2017, and set new goals for the new year, I’m left with a feeling of gratitude and excitement for what 2018 will bring.

It sounds cliché, but the events of 2017 taught me quite a bit about myself and what I hope to achieve in coming years. It was one of the most difficult years of my life, mentally and emotionally, and in those moments, I was frustrated and exhausted. However, as I look back, each of those moments offered a chance for me to grow, learn, and look at life from a new perspective. Take a peek at some of the #goals I have for this year.

Resolution #1: SELF CARE

Last year, between January and May, I struggled with self confidence. As I gave up my title as Miss Northern Lights 2016 and began competing for local titles, I wore myself very thin. Chasing a dream does not come on a straight path, and the bumps in the road often feel like mountains. Mentally, I was unsure of myself and my abilities, I was not taking care of myself, and I continuously put my own well-being on the back burner.

During this time, I had a mission to impact as many people as possible, hosting workshops, traveling to meet with others, and going out of my way to make people happy, even if I wasn’t. In the moment, I felt I was doing the right thing, especially for the dream I had. After all, Miss America is a servant leader, and if that was my dream, I had to continue practicing that all day, every day, 110%.

I would do anything for my GEMS, I’d do anything for my family and friends, and I’d do anything to make my community a better place for future generations.

However, anything does NOT mean everything, and one can only give so much of themselves before they need to take a step back and recharge. This thought finally sank in when I walked off the Sweeps stage in April, tired after giving all my efforts, realizing that I wouldn’t be back at Miss Wisconsin in 2017. Of course, I was upset, but that didn’t mean my life goals or human purpose ended there.

Instead, I decided that I wanted to work on myself, so when the time comes, I would be ready for the service and selflessness that comes along with being a titleholder, but also to prepare myself for many other goals I had. I needed to practice being healthy (mentally, emotionally, and physically), happy, confident, and secure in my abilities if I wanted to be able to give myself to others and achieve the most.

So many women and volunteers in this organization are givers. We share the same goal of impacting communities and making change. This is why I love this program, BUT, giving and giving and giving without taking time for self care can be unhealthy. This is why I choose to take time for MYSELF this year. Resting (and not apologizing for it), reflecting, believing in my capabilities, and asking for help when I need it.

Resolution #2: GIRL BOSS

In 2017, I had a lot on my to-do list. I wanted to make GEMS a non-profit, establish programs in schools and communities throughout Wisconsin, explore internships, make connections, take steps in the right direction for my future, and MORE.

I think too many people are afraid to chase after what they want. Too many people are comfortable, but not happy. We live our day to day lives aiming for mediocre and just getting by. What’s holding you back? Fear of failure? Fear of breaking a cycle? Fear of taking a risk? Well STAHHP!

This year, I’m taking initiative and stepping up to the plate to make things happen. A friend of mine once said, “One of your dreams is to be Miss America one day…do you realize that EVERY woman is only three steps away from making that happen? Local title, state title, then Miss America. One step at a time is all it takes.”

This goes for all of us. You are only a few steps away from whatever you want to achieve, no matter how big or crazy the goal may be. Trying to finish your degree? Trying to start your business? Trying to get healthy? Trying to find a new job that you love? TAKE INITIATIVE, TAKE ACTION, TAKE THE STEPS TO GET THERE. No more sitting back and letting the days go by. I’m going to take this journey with you and I’m going to be a girl boss this year.

Resolution #3: PRACTICE KINDNESS

This year, I learned that we’re all judgy AF, but you know what? I’m gonna do me, and you can do you, and we can all be happy doing our own thing.

I think social media makes it so easy to judge other people through a screen and a keyboard, unable to truly understand the impact that our virtual words have on other people. Let’s all try to recognize how we can effectively communicate with others, stop the hatin’, and start practicing kindness. Couldn’t we all use a little more of that?

Be kind to those who serve you, be kind to those who are different than you, be kind to those who are vulnerable, be kind to those who need kindness the most. In a world where there is so much hate, we have to remember that WE are the source. Human beings have the power to create and spread hatred, but we also have the beautiful ability to use our voices and our hands to spread kindness. This year, I want to spread a little more kindness by carefully evaluating my own thoughts, words, and actions.

P.S.. Speaking of spreading kindness, I came across a song in the past year that was created and promoted by a variety of artists and social influencers after the 2016 Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub. I encourage you to listen to it here. Let me know what you think of it! It’s one of my favorites.

Resolution #4: BE FEARLESS

Maybe you’ve all hopped on my anxiety struggle bus and followed along for the ride, but if you haven’t, head on over and read My Anxious MindStarting Life on Lexapro, and Life on Lexapro: 15 Weeks.

Okay, let’s continue.

Based on these experiences and what’s been going on in my mind for a number of years, I find myself sitting in a puddle of fear some days. Fear to leave my house, fear to travel more than an hour or two from home, fear of public transportation (this is more common than you’d think), fear of certain places or things…the list goes on. This year, I want to JUST DO IT (where’s Shia LaBeouf when you need him). I want to go places, see things, experience new adventures.

Every time I find myself fearful, I want to remember that every opportunity–big or small–is a chance for growth. Change can be scary, and stepping out of your comfort zone is not easy, especially if you’re on an anxious struggle bus like I am, but we’re all in this together. Time to take chances this year.

The “new year, new me” cliché is a bit lame, because I believe you can recreate yourself and reinvent your life path ANY day of the year. I look forward to the 365 days of opportunity that lie ahead, and I’m ready to take on the challenge. I hope you choose to make the most of every day and start making shit happen.

Go you. Happy 2018, friends.

Love always,

Jessica

You’re a…Communication Major?

I’ve heard it all already.

“You’re a communication major? What are you going to do with that?”

“Isn’t that an easy major?”

“Communicating is just common sense.”

I recently read an article, written by a Communication major, about how she felt the stigma of Communication majors is significantly negative. Communication has the reputation of being an easy A, “last resort” major that doesn’t guarantee any chance of a successful career. I’m here to bring justice to my fellow Comm majors and throw some truth to the skeptics. Let’s drop the mic…

As I near my college graduation, a commonly asked question is, “What degree are you pursuing?”

When I say, “Communication and PR,” there’s usually a mixed reaction. Looks of confusion and doubt flood the faces of family, friends, and strangers. I get it…having the ability to communicate effectively seems like something we should all know already, so why spend nearly $70,000 on a piece of paper that says I can do so?

My education in communication has allowed me to understand why people think this way. There are logical thinkers and there are abstract thinkers. From a logical mind, liberal arts don’t teach a tangible skill and it doesn’t set you up for a specific skill set, like computer programming or pre-optometry would. That ambiguity is illogical for a logical thinker (aka, our science and math friends). I get it. However, as an abstract thinker, I am able to see the bigger picture. Communication is essential for ANY career path, which gives me the flexibility to choose where my degree leads me. It makes sense for ME.

Communication and other liberal arts degrees tend to be pushed aside because some people may believe that they are irrelevant. Let me just put things into perspective here…

Imagine a world without the news. Broadcast journalism…gone. Nothing on TV, nothing on the radio, no articles to search online. How would you get your information?

Imagine if you created a business and have a new, innovative product to launch, but you don’t know how to get people into your store to buy it. Your business fails.

Think of a huge corporation, like United Airlines, for example. We all know what happened recently when a passenger was dragged off the plane for not giving up his seat. It made headlines everywhere. How does United repair their professional reputation after this?

I have one answer for all three of those scenarios: communication professionals. Your journalists, marketing gurus, public relations specialists, sales representatives, television producers, advertising buffs, social media experts, etc. However, it isn’t limited to this.

What other fields have a curriculum surrounding communication? Law, political science, international relations, film and music production, business, human resources, social work, education…the list is endless.

I’m better at words, you’re better at numbers. If my skills are different from yours, great. However, you have no place to undermine my major as something that is irrelevant or “easy,” because chances are, your major needs my major to be successful.

I work hard for where I am and it’s only going up from here. I’m excited and proud to graduate in the top 10% of my major, with an article published on MTV, two internships under my belt, a blog that reaches over 800,000 people, a scholarship through the Miss America Organization for my interviewing abilities, a program of my own that will soon be an incorporated non-profit, and a degree that will allow me to effectively sell my goals, accomplishments, ambitions, and skills to future employers in ANY field I choose.

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To answer your question, I hope to be the Director of Communication for a non-profit organization or small corporation, focusing on social media marketing and public relations…and I’m well on my way.

The beauty of higher education is that we are able to explore our unique skills and abilities to hopefully make a decent living, but more importantly, find what we truly have a passion for. I genuinely love what I do, and I hope your degree will allow you to do the same.

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.

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