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.

18222470_10154759291794302_6184158564626982392_n.jpg

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.”

19732307_10154948109454302_6692361503110203839_n.jpg

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.

unnamed.jpg

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.

image6.JPG

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.

image4 (1).JPG

“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!”

image5.JPG

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.

18835648_10154839574274302_6528562660333185062_n.jpg

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!”

image3 (1).JPG

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.

image1 (4).JPG

Que Sera, Sera

 

14666074_1486174524731864_8959262625682655450_n

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

Being Miss Northern Lights 2016

Going into this journey, I knew that I wanted to remain 100% authentic and unapologetically myself. I promised myself that I would share this opportunity with my community and with the world, never hiding what it really means or what it takes to be a local titleholder. Here you go, the truth behind the crown.

12806257_1289189244430394_5914731674398861635_n

Photo by: VOSStudios

Now, I’ve only been involved with this organization for three years, so I’m no expert on the whole pageant thing. However, my year as a titleholder has taught me a lot. Self-worth, sisterhood, responsibility, respectability, selflessness, personal branding, marketability, perseverance, the list goes on.

Before I go on, it took me quite some time to finally capture a local title and it definitely was not an easy process. In fact, I wrote about my journey up until the crown in a previous article, “If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It” (there’s my little sales pitch, now go read it before continuing). Moving on…

Our society is obsessed with instant gratification. If we can’t get something quickly, it’s not worth fighting for at all. At least, that’s what it seems like. There are countless methods pitched to us every single day about how we can become rich and famous, skinny, happy, healthy, successful, etc overnight.

I hate to break it to you, but success rarely comes immediately.

During my two years of competing before being Miss Northern Lights, I walked away without a title five times, not even a runner-up. I spent two and a half years pouring everything I had into each competition but still seemed to always fall short. I was frustrated with myself, honestly. However, I realize now that the previous five times were not for me and I had to know that there was a better opportunity that God had planned for me ahead. I am grateful to have had a tough journey because I think it made me appreciate this opportunity even more.

10450596_1071190462896941_3062367322336286206_n

On January 16th, 2016, I learned that delayed gratification is a beautiful lesson. Before this day, I had only a small idea of what this journey would entail. I knew I would be able to compete for the title of Miss Wisconsin, I knew I would commit to a year of service to the community, I knew about the scholarships. What I didn’t know was how many doors would be opened through this opportunity; the kinds of people I would meet. I had no idea that a handful of rhinestones on your head can make your voice 10 times louder.

13494877_1376546639027987_8696867145509361391_n

Rewind to the beginning of last year…

Immediately after the pageant, Katie (my fabulous director) and I met frequently to discuss my goals for the year and how we could start preparing for Miss Wisconsin. At this point, the main priority was to improve EVERYTHING. My paperwork and resume, my platform, my wardrobe, my talent routine, stage presence, knowledge of current events, speaking skills, and interviewing. Most of my time during the first 4-5 months as Miss Northern Lights was preparing to be Miss Wisconsin.

At the same time, I had to start working on my goals as just Jessica. Building onto my platform, starting and marketing my own GEMS program, scheduling appearances, planning events with local officials, and raising money for Children’s Miracle Network (the Miss America Organization’s national platform).

Most people don’t see this part at all, which is why I believe there is such a big misconception about pageant girls. The public only sees the final product of the hard work and preparation, so it’s easy to think that it must only take a pretty face and a pretty penny to pull off the job.

A big part of my mission was to break those stereotypes and misconceptions, which was quite the challenge as one of the only girls in the history of my hometown to ever hold a local Miss America title. Sometimes, people don’t understand and make remarks or simply view you as an airhead Barbie doll, but that’s when you have to step up and do your job. You are not a “beauty queen,” you are an intelligent, confident advocate for the organization, yourself, and your platform.

13466011_1376546669027984_2807674846365947255_n

Quite honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I correct people on the true job of a titleholder in the Miss America Organization.

“So you just have to be skinniest and prettiest one and you win?”

“You basically just sign up, pay money, and they give you a crown, right?”

“You just get to be in parades and stuff.”

No, no, and no. Definitely not. All wrong.

Believe me, when I signed up for my first pageant, part of me thought that if I could fit those molds, it might be that easy. Boy, was I wrong. The more I immersed myself in the organization and what it REALLY is, I learned that it is not an easy job if you want to do it well.

Sometimes people just won’t understand you and won’t care to. Some people will see you at an appearance and only see the crown, but won’t listen to what you have to say. Some people are just stuck on the pageant stereotype (but of course, do your best to change that).

13321707_1358111207538197_8331852209756630238_n-1

As a representative for a large community, like the central Wisconsin region, you meet a wide variety of people. Sometimes, you will be speaking to a kindergarten class, sometimes you will be performing for residents in a nursing home, and sometimes you’ll be presenting to a Kiwanis Club. The common denominator is always you. Most of the time, people are just eager and excited to see you and know that you took the time out of your day to attend their event. THAT is one of the best parts of the job…feeling appreciated.

Aside from Miss Wisconsin preparation at the beginning, I was getting more involved in the community throughout the year. I sent emails and made phone calls to introduce myself to local organizations, speak to them about my mission, ask for support, or help out at local events.

12439186_1317823554900296_2581502442324547520_n-1

I had to be independent, responsible, and organized as I scheduled my own appearances. I had to be prepared and professional every time. As a titleholder, first impressions are everything! At each appearance, there were new people who come up to shake my hand and ask what I do. Often enough, this is the only time you will ever meet that person or speak to them, so you have to make an impact every time.

This adds a lot of pressure! People have expectations before they even meet you, so you always have to do your best to exceed those expectations and be the best example and role model during the time you have.

12642679_1264213320261320_4505353909706192170_n

The year is full of many high points, but in the lows of the year (and there are some), it can feel like all the work you are doing is not enough. There have been a handful of times when I asked myself, “Is this worth it?” Sometimes it feels like you are not making the big impact that you hoped to make. As I reflected on this opportunity, I had to remember something… If I can inspire just one person this year, I’ve done my job. You can’t change the whole world in a year, but you can be the fire that sparks change.

At the beginning of the year when I made my list of goals, I wanted to tackle every single one of them by the time I passed on the title. Truth is, I didn’t reach all my goals during the time I had. Another thing I had to remember was that at the end of my year as Miss Northern Lights 2016, I can continue to pursue my unfinished goals.

I can still plan service projects, I can still host GEMS workshops, I can still be a role model. The only difference is that I don’t have rhinestones on my head. Who said you have to wear a crown to make a difference? You’re still the same person, right? Absolutely.

14606293_1489686181047365_5972387440645059839_n

I think this was a pretty humbling realization. Actually, the entire year is full of humbling realizations. The little moments are the ones that make the hard work worth it. Standing next to your MAO sisters and feeling nothing but love and support for each other; connecting with business professionals, directors, and judges who push you to be your best, on and off the stage; noticing the admirable peeks of little eyes at an appearance; meeting the miracle kids you collect CMN donations for. It all comes together. Everything you are working hard for IS worth it. The lessons learned, connections made, and the skills gained truly do stay with you even after it’s all said and done.

A girl did an interview with me recently for her English class and asked, “What is your advice to people who might want to start competing in pageants?”

I say, keep yourself grounded. I don’t care if you contacted 100 people to raise your CMN donations or if your evening gown was paid for by your parents. Remember where you come from and who helped you get to where you are today, because you did not do this on your own. STAY HUMBLE.

I also say that perseverance is a beautiful thing. Keep pushing to be your best, stay focused on the goal at hand, and recognize how to improve. BE ACTIVE in your personal development and never be afraid to reach out to those who can help you. You never know when your time might just be around the corner.

This is a job that requires public attention, but you can never let it get to your head. If you are doing this for the right reasons, this opportunity should mean much more than a sparkly crown and waving in parades.

15844486_1580570201958962_2038258596238738001_o

There is ALWAYS something to improve on. If you can’t think of anything you need to work on to be better, let’s go back to the “humble” point.

During the days when you’re burnt out and tired of planning and preparing, remember why you do this. Remember your passion, your dedication to your platform, and the commitment you made to serve your community.

15965192_1586362571379725_5582800891029560613_n

It’s not about “winning” or “beating the competition” and many girls often see it that way, myself included at the beginning. You’re only competing against your own scores. Focus on being the best version of YOU, not someone else.

Remember that your job is to serve. You are NOT above anyone just because you have a crown on. I always remind myself that the crown will capture peoples’ attention, but your passion, hard work, and your voice is what will capture peoples’ hearts.

Being Miss Northern Lights was the greatest privilege. I keep my crown and sash on my desk as a reminder of the very special moments held with them. All the little hugs, firm handshakes, tears of frustration and of happiness, and smiles of gratitude and honor. Today, I’m back at square one competing for other local titles for another incredible opportunity in the Miss America Organization. There’s still a lot of work to be done and improvements to be made, but I will do everything to better myself before passing my hard work onto God’s hands. I am not guaranteed a spot on the Miss Wisconsin stage again next summer, but I CAN guarantee that this experience has changed me for the better. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, I am changed.

Love always,

Jessica

15994942_1590342250981757_3955638309584962243_o