Tag Archive | larissa mckean

It’s A Small World After All

There are 7.4 billion people in the world.  319 million of those live in the United States, and about 1.8 million live in Nebraska.  Any given day, you could come across any number of strangers… or you could bump into familiar faces in the strangest of places.  Last year as my husband and I were traveling to Cancun, we randomly bumped into his cousin at the airport.. a cousin who lives in California.  Then while we were at the resort, 2700 miles away, we literally ran into our good friend, Megan.  Of all the hotels in all the vacation destinations around the world, we chose the exact same spot at the exact same time.  There is some truth to the saying ‘it’s a small world after all.’  So perhaps I shouldn’t have been as surprised to hear, the first time I met the new Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen, “I think you know one of my teachers..”

Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Alex Nervig

Alex Nervig is a proud Millard North Mustang, the high school where my husband has been an assistant baseball coach for 11 years.  Turns out, head coach Dave Cork is one of her teachers this year. Of all the schools and all the teachers in the Omaha metro…

but Millard is getting accustomed to having ‘pageant girls’ walk their halls.  Miss Nebraska 2014 Megan Swanson and Miss Nebraska 2016 Aleah Peters are both Millard Public Schools grads.  Miss Gering 2016 LaRissa McKean and Miss Western Nebraska 2015 Chrissy Townsend are Millard South alums, and Miss Tri-Cities Outstanding Teen 2016 Ashly Helfrich studied at Millard West as she prepared for state competition.

“I decided to compete for my local title because I know a lot of people who have competed in this system and have absolutely loved it!” Alex told me.  “This is also my last eligible year to compete in the teen pageant so I decided even if I don’t win, it will still be a really fun experience.”

Alex crowning

But she did win, and hit the ground running through every door that opened up for her.  Alex has since been spotted volunteering for the Salvation Army, taking part in fundraisers for Children’s Miracle Network and spreading some Irish goodwill in Omaha’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

“My goal is to enjoy the journey and make the most of it,” said Alex.  “I have met so many new friends and I have gained multiple opportunities that I never thought I would have.  I am so excited to see what the rest of the year holds for me!”

A year that was already jam-packed with performances and competitions; Alex is a member of the World Champion Stepperettes Baton Team, and she’s part of the state-finalist Mustang Varsity Cheer Squad.

Through cheer, Alex became part of the Sparkles program, partnering cheerleaders at several Omaha area high schools with students who have special needs.  The Sparkles held their first annual showcase this winter, and they volunteered at the Annual Rock and Roll for Disabilities in Omaha.  Friendships have always been integral to Alex, and she’s dedicated her year of service to the special relationships she’s formed through Sparkles.

Click here to read more about the Sparkles 1st Annual Showcase in the Omaha World Herald!

“My platform is called ‘We Are One’ and it promotes the equal treatment of people with special needs,” said Alex. “I chose this as my platform because throughout my years of school I have seen students with special needs get bullied and I want to see it come to an end.”

Flashback to October.. and telling Coach Cork that once again, a Millard girl was our newest titleholder in the Miss Nebraska system.  I heard then how kind Alex Nervig was to everyone around her, and how involved she was in the community. She didn’t transform into an outstanding teenager when she put on a crown; those qualities were already there.  That crown, and the 17 others worn by teens across Nebraska, simply highlight the extraordinary things they would be doing with or without their titles.

Alex and girls

“So far, my favorite part has been meeting the other local titleholders and becoming friends with them,” said Alex.  “I would really like people to know that pageants are not all about wearing pretty dresses and wearing a crown.  The crown gives us an opportunity to spread the message of our platform and make a positive change in society.”

Our connections to each other around the world are simply incredible.  It’s the Kevin Bacon effect.. someone knows someone who knows someone.  When those stories are exchanged, when we connect the dots as to how we all relate to each other, how will everyone describe you?  Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen Alex Nervig hopes to stand out as a funny, talking, outgoing young lady who made a difference in this world.

Alex C&G

“I want people to know that your success is determined by your definition of success, not someone else’s,” said Alex.  ” As long as you accomplish your goals, you can call yourself a winner.”

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Alex Nervig or to get more information about the Miss Omaha/Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen Pageant! You can also email Director Kelsey Ellis at omahadouglascountyot@gmail.com.

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The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant takes place April 21-22 in Omaha, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook. For more information about becoming a contestant, email Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Metro’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Jamie Chen

NEXT.. Miss Nebraska State Fair 2017 Jenni Wahonick

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Fire and Gold

June 4, 2015.

I had the humbling honor of hosting the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen pageant, and spent the day at North Platte High School in rehearsals.  During breaks, I tried to upload as many photos to the Miss Omaha Facebook page as I could, typing furiously to tag contestants and draw more viewers to our site.  I almost didn’t notice when a stunning blonde sat next to me and said ‘Hi, how’s it going?’

Her name was Alyssa Howell.

Funny how such a small gesture of kindness, just taking a moment to ask someone how they are doing, can make such a big impact on how you think of a person.  A panel of six judges thought VERY highly of Alyssa.. naming her Miss Nebraska 2015 just 24 hours later.

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Photo courtesy the North Platte Telegraph

“Miss Nebraska week was the most fun I have ever had!” Alyssa told me recently.  “I was surrounded by 12 amazing contestants that not only were great friends to me during the week, but who also supported me throughout my year.”

And so began a reign that represents everything this Miss Nebraska has stood for; friendship, kindness, genuineness.

As a longtime Miss America fan and a journalist who is always subconciously observing, I’ve noticed over the years the reaction of other contestants speaks volumes about the woman crowned.  Minutes after Alyssa was named Miss Nebraska, she was immediately embraced by  her ‘pageant sister’, Miss Omaha Megan Gould.  Just weeks later, Alyssa invited Megan, as well as other Miss Nebraska finalists Brooke Ludemann, LaRissa McKean and Allison Tietjen, to perform at her send-off party for Miss America.  These women, Alyssa’s competition at this time last year, seemed genuinely happy for her and showed up in full force to give her their support; Alyssa was eager to share her spotlight that night to showcase the titleholders who had become her friends.

For me.. it goes back to that day in the cafeteria.. Alyssa Howell is REAL.  She doesn’t pretend to care about people; she just DOES.  She’s taken that incredible quality across the country for the last year, focusing much of her time and energy on children.

“Not having grown up in Nebraska, this year took me to so many new places!” said Alyssa.  “Just being able to reach Nebraskans across the state was such a wonderful experience.  Whether it was a Pumpkin Chuckin’ in a cornfield in northeastern Nebraska, a small town elementary school with a total of 42 students, or a large scale fundraising Gala in downtown Omaha, I was able to reach out to the people of Nebraska on so many levels.  If anything, this year reminded me just how much I love being a part of the Cornhusker State.”

Alyssa visited dozens of schools across Nebraska, and four Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals in several states.  THAT has been Alyssa’s passion for years now, connecting with sick children through her Miracle Bags program.

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Alyssa recruiting 2016 Miss Nebraska contestants to put together and deliver bags of goodies, ‘Miracle Bags’ to kids at Omaha’s Children’s Hospital & Medical Center

CLICK HERE to watch KETV’s story about Alyssa & her Miracle Bags!

“As soon as I won Miss Nebraska, one of my priorities for the year was to impact as many children as I could with my Miracle Bags program,” said Alyssa.  “And with that goal in mind I was able to visit the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals in Omaha, Denver, Milwaukee, and Washington DC, and deliver over 180 Miracle Bags!  Many people ask me how I am able to visit children who are in such dire situations, and not be completely depressed after the fact.  I always tell them that the feeling of seeing a child who is going through the most difficult time in their life light up at the sight of my crown and Miracle Bag is indescribable.  And I will never forget the parents who tell me that this is the first time they have seen their child smile in days.  Children’s Miracle Network will forever be a passion of mine.”

To countless families and children, Alyssa made a profound impact.  She also made a huge mark on the pageant world, when in September, she travelled to Atlantic City to represent Nebraska in the 2016 Miss America Pageant.

“I have watched the Miss America Pageant every year on TV since I can remember, but never in my wildest dreams did I believe that I would one day be on that stage!” said Alyssa.  “Even after winning Miss Nebraska, my goal for Miss America was to have a blast, meet some amazing girls, and represent Nebraska well.”

Check, check, CHECK.  And when 7-million Americans tuned in to see who would make the Top 15..

Left photo courtesy Getty Images

..they heard Miss Nebraska, Alyssa Howell.  I screamed and jumped in my living room.. Alysa’s family and friends were EXUBERANT in the crowd in Atlantic City.  With the confidence women dream of and the swagger of Bruno Mars, Alyssa strutted her stuff on that stage in Lifestyle and Fitness.. and sauntered right into the Top 12.

Photos courtesy Getty Images

“Being called into the Top 15 was a complete and total shock,” said Alyssa.  “Standing on that stage with 51 other talented, beautiful, intelligent women, I never thought that I would hear NEBRASKA called! I still get goosebumps when I watch the video.  When I made the Top 12, I was just so excited and honored to move on!  I was surrounded by some of my best friends in the competition and it was such a surreal moment.”

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Photo courtesy Getty Images

That is where Alyssa’s journey ended, sadly, before she could play her INCREDIBLE piano solo for America.  But when I spoke to her just a few weeks later at the Miss Omaha Pageant, Alyssa didn’t have ONE negative thing to say about her experience;  no trash talk on her fellow contestants, no coulda woulda shoulda’s.. simply a completely EXCITED outlook on what she could accomplish next in her home state as Miss Nebraska.  And holy cow.. has that been a lot.  After Miss America, Alyssa was featured in US Weekly and Pageantry magazines.  She was a high profile model in Omaha Fashion Week.  She secured and strengthened partnerships and sponsor connections with Omaha’s world renowned Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Sun Tan City, Kontempo. and nationally known stylist Kirby Keomysay among others.

Alyssa also became a frequent muse for photographers, taking part in numerous photo shoots with Deyo’s Photography in Nebraska and Jenn Cady Photography based in South Carolina.

Alyssa accepted every interview request that came her way, including the nationally recognized Pageant Junkies (CLICK HERE to listen!), Omaha’s KFAB and KETV (CLICK HERE to watch!)the North Platte Telegraph (CLICK HERE to read!), and ME!

“This year was definitely more challenging than I expected,” said Alyssa.  “Seeing all of the work Miss Nebraska does from Facebook and Instagram posts pales in comparison to the actual job.  What people don’t see is the full hair and makeup 4+ days a week, the early mornings, the days when I drive 8+ hours for an appearance, the days that I was sick, the days that I had three appearances and events.  Truly, this is a 24/7 job.  But what I also didn’t expect is how rewarding this whole experience would be! By going through everything this job requires, I have not only learned so many life skills, I have also learned so much about myself.  I know that if I can be Miss Nebraska, I can do anything.  This job has given me a strong sense of confidence about what I am capable of, as well as so many amazing memories and friendships!”

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June 4, 2016.

I have the humbling honor of writing this blog post, chronicling Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell and her year of service.  Initially, I wanted to title this article Humble and Kind, inspired by the Tim McGraw song that to me, so reflects who this incredible young woman is.  Despite her jaw-dropping beauty, smile and grace, she doesn’t radiate a shred of arrogance.  She is giving, real, and most of all KIND.

Alyssa Howell is fire and gold.  She has a huge heart that she has opened to countless children over the last year and more, with the aura of a woman who can only be called QUEEN.  As this journey ends, she’ll pick up where she left off one year ago.. pursuing her Elementary Education degree at Creighton University, intending to impact even more children through her career, now with a big boost from her life experiences and financial awards from being Miss Nebraska.

“I have won over $20,000 in cash scholarships for school,” said Alyssa.  “This has made all the difference in my future!  I started at Creighton University with a total of $27,000 in student loans over four years.  Graduating to become an elementary school teacher with that debt was going to be difficult to say the least.  This program is first and foremost a scholarship organization, and I cannot say enough about the impact that Miss Nebraska and Miss America makes on young women who are getting a college education.”

As I close out.. I must share a ‘shout out’ to part of  Alyssa’s dream team.. her boyfriend, Grady, and her directors, Kayla and Rachel.

These three are superstars in their own right; people who have been in Alyssa’s corner since the moment that crown was placed on her head.  They have also become near and dear to my heart with their humor, loyalty and dedication to helping Alyssa become the absolute best she could be.  Each of this year’s 36 women I’ve profiled have set out to make the world a better place, supported emotionally and otherwise by their own #TeamAlyssa’s.  To ALL of you, THANK YOU for helping these fires burn so brightly, for allowing these gems to sparkle.  They’re about to embark on one of the craziest, exhausting, yet exhilarating weeks of their lives.. and they’ll need you.

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“To this year’s contestants, whether you win or not, Miss Nebraska week is the most fun you will ever have!” said Alyssa.  “Don’t let the stress get to you, and don’t take yourself too seriously.  Just have fun and enjoy that time that you get with your Miss Nebraska sisters!  To Miss Nebraska 2016, I am so incredibly excited to see everything that this year has in store for you!  Remember to make this year your own, to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, and find those small moments that make every challenge worth it.  Most importantly, remember that this is a year of service.  Never underestimate what an impact a crown and a sash can make.”

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

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CLICK HERE to watch Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell’s Farewell Video

CLICK HERE to follow Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell

on Facebook and on Instagram.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALYSSA?

2015 * ROAR

2015 * Miracle Worker

2014 * The Kid Whisperer

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CLICK HERE to meet the 2016 Miss Nebraska Pageant contestants!

The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015 Steffany Lien!

NEXT.. Miss Nebraska Pageant 2016 Recap: The Year of the Phoenix

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Good Work

So I’ve mentioned I want to write a book..

So very many of the stories I’ve covered are inspiring, emotional and powerful… often because they reflect something incredibly positive, born out of something terrible and tragic.

January 5, 2011.  I was 8 months pregnant, sluggish and FOREVER late.  That day I was running behind as usual, hoping to stop at Subway on my way to work.  I was at the stoplight at 144th and Q and one, then two, then three Omaha Police cruisers flew past me with lights and sirens blaring.  I called the KETV assignment desk to let them know something was going on, and my managing editor, Jim Reding, responded, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a shooting at Millard South, we need you here right away.’

I immediately turned my car around and sped to KETV as quickly as I could.  Within minutes, I was on the anchor desk and on air, sharing what we knew with our viewers. A young man had walked into the front office and opened fire, shooting two principals.  One of them was dead, another was critically hurt.  The teenager drove a few miles away, then shot and killed himself.

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Millard South student Kyler Erickson heard and saw it all.  He hid in a bathroom, called 911, and waited.  No one should be witness to a nightmare like this; Kyler was as a teenager.  Still, he refused to let that horror take him down, despite the nightmares and grief that followed.  With therapy and sheer inner strength, Kyler healed emotionally and grew physically, attending the University of Nebraska Omaha to play Division 1 Basketball.  He began to share his story, meeting with everyone from veterans suffering from PTSD to other students.  This year, Kyler was named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches Good Works Team, recognized at the 2016 Final Four tournament, one of only five student athletes nationwide.  This dude is simply AWESOME.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Kyler’s incredible journey from KETV’s Matt Lothrop.

Kyler’s loved ones are among those most proud of this young man, including his longtime friends from Millard South…

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..friends who were there in full force at Kyler’s final game with UNO.  The girl in the beige and black sweater is LaRissa McKean.

“He’s so inspiring,” LaRissa told me recently.  She too was at Millard South that day, in AP Economics class.  And much like her friend Kyler, she’s devoted much of her time and focus on simply trying to make the world a better place.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

“The best compliment I received was from a sorority sister.  She anonymously left me a note saying ‘you make people feel good about themselves,'” said LaRissa.  “That statement is what motivates me daily to make an impact on someone’s life.”

I first met LaRissa last summer at the Miss Nebraska Pageant; she left her mark on most, if not all of the audience and her fellow contestants.  This girl is SHEER JOY.. she lights up a room with her smile and personality, and radiates energy and glee the second she steps on stage. LaRissa was also voted Miss Congeniality by her fellow contestants.

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That beautiful smile shows LaRissa’s inner spirit… but so does THIS.

Hilarious.  Carefree.  So many women in pageants, business and LIFE are afraid to let their guard down, so afraid of what people will think about them.  LaRissa knows who she is and OWNS it.  You can just tell she LOVES life, and everyone around her smiles and lets THEIR guard down because of it.

LaRissa will compete at Miss Nebraska again this year as Miss Gering 2016.  Her personal platform of service is called ‘Feel The Difference: Empowerment Through Communication.’

“[It’s] based on Maya Angelou’s quote, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’  I will leave a legacy where I make people feel inspired and willing to take the act of listening through conversation to better the lives around them.”

LaRissa has all kinds of opportunities to communicate.. the girl is surrounded by people CONSTANTLY.  A University of Kansas graduate specialized in Accounting and Human Resources, LaRissa currently works three jobs; she’s a Head Instructor of summer high school/college dance camps with Universal Dance Association, she’s a full-time educator with Lululemon, and she’s a substitute paraprofessional in the district where she grew up, Millard Public Schools.  She volunteers every week with local 4th graders, helping them catch up on homework and answering questions.  LaRissa also takes part frequently at charity events, doing what she can to help as Miss Gering.

THEN.. there’s dance, a constant in LaRissa’s life for many years.

“I have judged the State Dance Competition for the last three years along with other local high school competitions and college regional competitions for the NAIA Nationals,” said LaRissa, who learned at and competed with Kitty Lee Dance, a place she still practices and volunteers.  “One of my biggest role models was Miss Kitty.  Not only did she instill my love for dance, she taught me to be stronger and never think you can’t improve.  She raised me in the studio and I can’t thank her enough for whacking my leg with a ruler to get my knees straight.  She was the first one to correct me in every dance class but also the first to congratulate me on a performance well done.  Even with her gone, I know she is watching every class and performance, smiling that her passion lives inside of me.”

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Talent is LaRissa’s favorite part of the Miss Nebraska Pageant; she plans to combine her love of comedy and dance to present a musical theater piece with ‘an element of surprise’ this year.

“Not only does [talent] set our system apart from others, it is truly beautiful to see all the contestants show their art to the world,” said LaRissa.  “I love watching the contestants light up the floor with their interests and show a piece of themselves to everyone.  The emotion that can be portrayed in 90 seconds gives me goosebumps and really shows the uniqueness of every competitor.”

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That’s one of the things LaRissa hopes to share with pageant naysayers.. to learn more about the women who take part before forming an opinion.

“I remember going to pageants as a young girl and telling my mom I couldn’t wait to be as pretty or as talented as the women that compete for Miss Nebraska,” said LaRissa.  “The majority of people who compete are varsity athletes in their schools, Honor Roll recipients, and leaders in their community.  They are some of the most respected people and receive more credit for being mentors to people all across the nation.”

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LaRissa adds that every woman she knows who’s taken part in this system has made a difference in someone’s life.. and that she became a leader because of it.  She describes the title of Miss Nebraska as a job she’s applying for that could give her a year of memories she can only imagine.  BUT.. in the swirl of glamour and costumes and performances, LaRissa hasn’t lost focus of her values and priorities; her family, including grandparents Pampy and Nana who she spends several hours with every week.  Education, through both mentoring students and planning ahead to obtain a Masters Degree.  Love, and her love of people.. simply spending time with those who matter most, friends like Kyler Erickson.

No one would have faulted Kyler for never talking about that day again, for withdrawing from everything to process what happened, for moving thousands of miles away from Omaha to escape everything and start fresh.  Instead, this guy confronted his demons, defeated them, then stayed and shared his journey to help others still battling.  LaRissa McKean’s story doesn’t stem from tragedy and horror but is inspiring nonetheless.. a young woman using her gifts and positive attitude to simply do good work in our world.

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Photo courtesy  Loren C Winkler Images

“At the end of the day, I look in the mirror, washing off my makeup and think it would be amazing to be Miss Nebraska 2016, but I would rather be known as LaRissa who became Miss Nebraska because of the person I am,” said LaRissa.  “I’m an honest person, who gives my opinion respectively.  I won’t change my values or morals because of a title, I will continue to grow and live a life I treasure.  At the end of the day, I will still be LaRissa McKean forever.”

I think they call this perspective.  Maybe it’s what she saw Kyler go through.  Maybe it’s been the lesser challenges she, like the rest of us, go through.  No matter where the drive comes from.. imagine what life could be like if we all strived to do good work to help each other, and in turn, found peace and joy within ourselves.

Kyler Erickson is available to speak at events; CLICK HERE for details and to learn more about his story.

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Click on each link below to follow Miss Gering 2016 LaRissa McKean

on FACEBOOK and on INSTAGRAM.  You an also email LaRissa for appearances and events at larissamckean@gmail.com.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT LaRISSA?

2015 * Sleepless Beauty

For more information about the Miss Gering/Miss Western Nebraska Pageant, CLICK HERE to visit their Facebook page.  For information on becoming a contestant, contact Director Heather Hayes by phone at 307-340-0601, or by email at Heather.Hayes@chartercom.com.

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The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Gering’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Ashlynn Haun!

NEXT.. Miss Panhandle’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Shaniah Freeseman!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

True Colors

This blog comes you to from 36,000 feet up in the air.

Photojournalist Ashley Nodgaard and I left Omaha Wednesday on a bleary-eyed 5:30am flight bound for La Paz, Mexico!  Through the months of May and June, we’ll show you the mission that’s been weeks in the making for us and months, if not YEARS in the making for an Omaha team.

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CLICK HERE to see a preview of Operation: Open Hearts on KETV!

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Ashley and me to tell incredible stories.  Truly, THAT is why we both got into this business in the first place.  I think to some extent there’s an assumption about people in TV News, that we do this because we want to see ourselves on television.  I admit, the first time I reported on camera.. the first time I sat in the anchor chair for a broadcast.. those moments were exhilarating.  BUT.. that sheen wears off in time, and for MANY years now, my adrenaline rushes have come from knowing we are sharing powerful stories of things going on in our city, state, and in our world, and seeing the difference that can come from that.

I have a feeling my friend Payton Merritt is reading this, thinking ‘Preach!!’  She’s not a journalist, but she is a young woman trying to prove that her mission isn’t about big hair and glitter, it’s about making a difference with a powerful tool she’s been given.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

“The world is filled with need—I want to use the gifts that God has blessed me with to positively impact my small window of the world,” Payton told me recently.  “It was within the Miss Nebraska Organization that I found this window, and my desire to be a leader and role model for my state brought my greatest dream full circle.”

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Payton will compete for the title of Miss Nebraska this June, currently Miss Nebraska State Fair 2016.  Complete disclosure… I kinda love her.  I first met Payton when serving as a judge and then volunteer for the Miss Omaha/Miss Douglas County pageant—Payton was our teen titleholder, then years later, crowned Miss Omaha.  She’s this teeny, petite, blonde, but when she sings, her voice is anything BUT petite; it’s soulful, deep.. it makes you utter ‘dang!’ from your seat in the audience.  Singing was Payton’s initial tie to the Miss America Organization, an added element to what was already a magnetic draw for a child watching on TV from home.

“For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of becoming Miss America,” said Payton.  “I would stand on the coffee table at our house and pretend to be on stage, waving at the audience, and singing ‘Little Red Wagon’ at the top of my lungs. (My mom says I wasn’t quite as in tune as I am today.)  Initially, it was about me and the pursuit of my dream.”

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Payton also focused on her studies, graduating from high school a semester early and earning a nearly full-ride academic scholarship to Creighton University.  On the Miss Nebraska stage, Payton showed hundreds intelligence and confidence.  That became part of her goal this year.. to show pageant critics the depth of character and abilities so many of these titleholders represent.  (It’s worth noting the Miss America Organization has awarded tens of thousands of dollars in cash scholarships to young women focusing on STEM; science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)

“I would tell them to look and listen far beyond the two hours of national television coverage.  We are a force of young women devoted and determined to make an impact within our communities,” said Payton.  “The phases of competition are representative of things beyond the surface—ultimately our poise, discipline, intellect and depth show that we can walk the walk, talk the talk, and then put it all to music!”

Payton also notes that she and the rest of the Miss Nebraska Class of 2016 are constantly seeking out ways to be visible, positive role models.  Payton and several other local titleholders recently joined Miss Nebraska Alyssa Howell to make Alyssa’s signature Miracle Bags for patients at Omaha’s Children’s Hospital and Medical Center; the girls then hand delivered them to those kids.

Payton, a devoted big sister to several admirers at home, has also connected to children in classrooms during school presentations, talking about her personal platform, ‘The Political Workout: Exercising Your Right To Vote.’

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“I am passionate about empowering people to utilize our most sacred right,” said Payton.  “Because of the sacrifices of many, we have been given a life of opportunity and choice.  I see other countries, and their battles and oppression, and know countless people would risk life and limb to live in a country in which they have the power to choose.  We Americans who do maintain that right, don’t exercise our greatest freedom in choosing who represents us, those who ultimately speak for us.”:

Payton often shares messages and quotes on her Miss Nebraska State Fair Facebook page, encouraging people of the power and importance behind the vote.  For Payton, it’s an issue she plans to pursue long after this often divisive 2016 Presidential Election; she’s pursuing Political Science and Economics degrees at Creighton with plans to attend law school.

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“I think in part [voter apathy] can be traced back to a lack of understanding and education about our political process,” said Payton.  “I want to do my part to show others how important exercising your right to vote is within a democracy.”

UNDERSTANDING AND EDUCATION.  We at KETV have a motto—more complete coverage.  It’s not just our catch phrase, it’s something I remind myself of when I’m tired and want to wrap up a story and move on.. is there more I could or SHOULD include?  Is there another angle to this?  At the end of the newscast, as complimentary (and sometimes not..) as it is to hear about my hair or my dress or the color of my lipstick, I want people to remember MY STORIES.. YOUR stories.  I want our viewers and readers to learn something new about a disease or a law or a PERSON.  Every time Payton Merritt performs the national anthem for the Creighton basketball or baseball games (click here to listen!), every time she dons her sparkling crown to visit a child or speak to a group, she wants to open new eyes to everything she stands for.

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Photo courtesy Brown Harano Photography

“I see the role of Miss Nebraska as one of service,” Payton said.  “Ultimately, I have a cause that I am dedicated to speaking to, one that is not only timely now, but maintains longevity for the democracy of our country.  I aim to serve God, my state, and hopefully my nation through my ability to relate to others, and through a commitment to impacting those who I encounter.  I am humbled by the opportunities I am blessed with, and though I am seeking a very public role, I am not seeking a personal place in the spotlight, but an opportunity to make an impact.”

***

Follow Miss Nebraska State Fair 2016 Payton Merritt

on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram.  You can also contact Payton for appearances and events by emailing paytonmerritt@hotmail.com.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT PAYTON?

CLICK HERE * 2014 * Omaha! Omaha!

For more information about the Miss Heartland/Miss Nebraska State Fair Pageant, visit their WEBSITE.  For information on becoming a contestant, contact Director Chelsey Jungck at 308-382-1710 or by email at cjungck@statefair.org, or contact Director Shelly Penner at 308-520-0416 or by email at sa_penner@hotmail.com.

***

The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

***

PREVIOUS.. Miss Kearney’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Shelbe Stroh!

NEXT.. Miss Gering’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Ashlynn Haun!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

The “It” Factor

Ever meet a person who you just KNOW is going be something big?  They have that IT factor.. how they present themselves, what they give to others, how they make you feel.

I found out about the Miss Nebraska Pageant through a letter I got in the mail.  I went to one of the first Miss Omaha rehearsals just to see what it was all about, and Brook Matthews was one of the first people I saw.  She was so dang fantastic I just about turned around and walked out–I was NOT going to even try to compete against her!  Brook was A STUNNING blonde, perfect body, well spoken, she had the confidence of a CEO and just radiated grace and sophistication.  In a crazy turn of events, I become her pageant sister a few weeks later; Brook became Miss Omaha and I became Miss Douglas County.

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Brook was later crowned Miss Nebraska 2004, then went on to  earn her Masters degree in Business from Creighton while founding and developing Omaha Fashion Week.  The event has become the 5th largest fashion event in the country, and last week, Brook Matthews-Hudson and her husband, Nick, opened the Omaha Design Center, welcoming sold-out crowds of thousands.

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Photo courtesy Kathy Rae Photography

Brook is a REALLY. BIG. DEAL.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the new home for Omaha Fashion Week, from KETV’s Chinh Doan!

A few years ago, I met a young woman who stood out to me in a group of OUTSTANDING young women.  I invited all of the 2014 Miss Nebraska contestants to the KETV studios to record a special edition of Chronicle to spread awareness about the program and the incredible things these titleholders were doing in their communities.   (Click here to watch the 2014 Miss Nebraska Chronicle special!)  Tosha Skinner made the long drive to Omaha to take part when several of the other western titleholders understandably did not; she was articulate, confident, and I went back to my desk that evening thinking, ‘Dang!! Who is that girl?!?’

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

Tosha Skinner is a 3-time local titleholder with the Miss Nebraska Organization and the current Miss Heartland.  She’s a UNL graduate and proud Delta Delta Delta alumnae.  She’s a Logistics expert, a volunteer, a Christian, and a woman proudly comfortable in her own skin.

“The most important part of my life is that I live out my platform every day,” Tosha told me recently.  “Because my platform focuses on self-love and living a healthy lifestyle, I think that it is essential I live my life with the values I teach.”

Tosha calls that personal mission ‘Perfectly, Imperfect: Learning to love the true you.’

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“After years of struggling with low self-confidence, which turned into an eating disorder and depression, I decided to start making changes to my life, which started with the way I viewed myself,” said Tosha.  “I became healthier in the way I thought, spoke, ate and lived.  I watched how each of these things helped me learn to love myself.  I soon realized that if I shared my own story, I could help others come to the same realization I did.  I want to live in a world where my little sister doesn’t have to struggle through the same things I did!”

Tosha has embarked on something of a social media crusade to pump positivity into the world, and to remind women everywhere of their beauty.  She posts inspirational memes, shares terrific photos to make you smile and think, and frequently updates her blog with op-ed like posts focused on image and self-improvement (CLICK HERE to read more!)

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Tosha on Facebook: ‘Nothing is more rewarding than knowing you helped create that smile #missheartland

Tosha says being a Miss America titleholder has not only given her an opportunity to share this message, but it’s part of the reason she found that message in the first place.

“I learned about eating right, working out, and how to better understand my own body, and I learned all of that because of preparing for Swimsuit (competition)!” said Tosha.  “The Miss Nebraska system has been an active part of my life.  I learned life skills like public speaking, stage presence, professionalism and living a healthy lifestyle.  It helped me find my passion for volunteering and taught me to step out of my comfort zone every day.  I am a better person because of the Miss Nebraska system.”

 And despite having a full-time job at Talent Plus in Lincoln, Tosha is an active proponent for that same organization, taking part in philanthropic events across the state on a weekly basis, if not more often.

Tosha’s raised awareness for Alzheimers, for Team Jack and pediatric cancer research (CLICK HERE to learn more!), for Junior Achievement, for Children’s Miracle Network, and for the American Heart Association. She says her dream is to turn her platform into a non-profit to reach even more people.  This is the work of a determined, selfless young woman.. a far cry from the self-described shy, unsure little girl she once was.

“Because of the Miss America Organization, that little girl grew into a woman that learned how to pick herself up every time she fell and how she learned how important hard work was,” said Tosha.  “Without the Miss Nebraska system, that little girl may never have finished college or landed her dream job.  But because she was involved in an organization that taught her how to be the best version of herself, that little girl can be anything.”

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Tosha Skinner is a Husker, a working woman, a friend, a mentor.  She’s a volunteer at People’s City Mission and a superhero at the Lincoln Children’s Museum.  She’s Miss Sugar Valley 2014, Miss Chadron 2015, Miss Heartland 2016.. and she’s ready to be Miss Nebraska.

“Being Miss Nebraska is more than just a pretty crown and sash,” said Tosha.  “It is about being a role model to both children and adults, presenting the best version of yourself every day, and most importantly, being the best possible representative for Nebraska.  It’s waking up every day with a smile, being prepared for anything the day may bring.  And it’s about utilizing the moments that you can touch someone’s life, with a smile or conversation.  This is the year I am prepared for.”

CHRISTIANSEN PHOTOGRAPHY

Photo courtesy Christiansen Photography

***

CLICK HERE to follow Miss Heartland 2016 Tosha Skinner on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram and via her blog: Perfectly, Imperfect.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT TOSHA?

CLICK HERE * 2015 * Cap And (Evening) Gown

CLICK HERE * 2014 * A Spoonful Of Sugar

For more information about the Miss Heartland/Miss Nebraska State Fair Pageant, visit their WEBSITE.  For information on becoming a contestant, contact Director Chelsey Jungck at 308-382-1710 or by email at cjungck@statefair.org, or contact Director Shelly Penner at 308-520-0416 or by email at sa_penner@hotmail.com.

***

The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

***

PREVIOUS.. Miss Chadron 2016 Tyler Rambali!

NEXT.. Miss Fur Trade Days’ Outstanding Teen 2016 Brooklyn Stack!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

ROAR

Well, HELLO!!!!! Long time no post! As always, THANK YOU for reading the blog!

I have been ‘off the grid’ for most of the month of June.  Vacation, time with family, heaven at home.

IT HAS BEEN FABULOUS!

Sometimes you just need to take a deep breath, step back, close your eyes and BE.  I feel refreshed, rejuvenated, and reminded of who I am.  GO OFF THE GRID! IT’S GREAT!  Even if just for a few days.

Before my amazing time at home with the three men in my life (four, if you count our dog, Mack), my hiatus began with a long awaited trip to North Platte, Nebraska.

MISS NEBRASKA 2015.

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Photo courtesy of Corbey Dorsey for the North Platte Telegraph; click here to read the NPT’s wonderful article on Alyssa by reporter Kamie Stephen!

After seven days of rehearsals and events, four days of nerve-wracking competition, a lot of laughs and some tears, too.. Miss Douglas County Alyssa Howell was crowned Miss Nebraska 2015.  What an INCREDIBLE moment to cap off a wonderful week for this caring, young woman.  Alyssa has dedicated so much of her time to others.  She is sweet, kind, hard working and focused.  For five years, she also watched her big sister compete at both the Miss Iowa and Miss Nebraska pageant, finishing as a finalist multiple times.

THIS MOMENT WAS ALL ALYSSA.  SHE WILL NOW FOREVER BE MISS NEBRASKA.

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So many cool moments; the kids who just LOVED Alyssa, including her Little Sisters who took part in all of the Miss Nebraska events at her side, and the little boy who not only wanted one kiss, he circled around for a second.  Alyssa’s real boyfriend, Grady, and his excitement and sheer pride every moment leading up to his girl’s crowning moment.  Shrieks of joy between Alyssa and the new Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015 Steffany Lien; the two have been Miss Douglas County sisters for months, now they are going to Miss America together.  And the heartwarming friendship and bond between Alyssa and her sister queen Miss Omaha Megan Gould, supporting each other from Omaha to North Platte and still to this day.

But.. I’m going to throw this out there.. was Alyssa ‘the best’?

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How do you choose which flower is ‘the best’ in the garden?  Which city is ‘the best’ in our state?  Which art, whether it be singing or dancing or playing piano, is ‘the best’?  Alyssa will be a FANTASTIC Miss Nebraska and I cannot WAIT to see how far she’ll go at Miss America.  This is Alyssa’s time; this is the result of her hard work; this recognizes an exceptional young woman, helping her to inspire so many more; and five smart, talented, and critical judges determined Alyssa Howell was the best candidate for this job as Miss Nebraska 2015.

The best of the best, you might say.. because HOLY CRAP, did this event showcase some absolutely incredible women in our state.

4th Runner Up, Miss Northwest LaRissa McKean

JOYFUL.  LaRissa McKean radiated happiness, and made everyone in the Miss Nebraska audience feel it.  She also shared that positivity with her fellow contestants, voted Miss Congeniality by the majority of the other titleholders.  LaRissa CAPTIVATED the audience Thursday night, winning the Preliminary Talent Award with an energetic and dazzling dance (another Kitty Lee Dance graduate!)  As I told one of my friends during finals night, she JUST MAKES ME SMILE.  What a better role model than that?

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3rd Runner Up, Miss Heartland Steffani Jiroux

BREATHTAKING.  I love watching dance, but don’t know much about it (and hurt myself trying.) I know even less about ballet, but I LOVE the costumes, the makeup, the SHOW.  And boy, oh boy, did Steffani Jiroux deliver.

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Just stop and look at this picture for a second.. (and thanks to Kamie Stephen and the North Platte Telegraph for sharing it!)

It was like watching a scene from a movie. Steffani also seemed to enjoy herself every moment; smiling nonstop, walking across that stage like she OWNED it, twirling around her Little Sisters like they were just dancing in the living room and not competing for the title of Miss Nebraska.  What’s next for Steffani? Continuing LAW SCHOOL at Creighton University.

2nd Runner Up, Miss Kool-Aid Days Brooke Ludemann

SENSATIONAL.  Miss Nebraska and Miss America challenge a woman to become the best version of herself in all areas, and Brooke Ludemann pushed herself to the max in every. single. test.  Her gown made me gasp (in a good way!); her answers showed evidence of a woman with a business plan as Miss Nebraska; her physical self was a demonstration of what our bodies can become with hard work and discipline, and her talent.. I have no words.  On the final night of competition, with everything on the line, Brooke’s performance singing ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables game me CHILLS.  Brooke won 2nd place for the Miss Nebraska Community Service Award, and she will be Nebraska’s representative at the National Sweetheart Pageant this summer.

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1st Runner Up, Miss Kearney Crane Festival Allison Tietjen

JAW DROPPING.  Every time Allison Tietjen walked on stage, my eyes were just DRAWN to her.  (In a completely uncreepy way, regardless of how that sounds…) She is the model of poise, grace, and beauty.  Allison could’ve walked right off the Miss Nebraska stage onto Hollywood’s red carpet and fit right in. BUT, what I love is that Allison knows, and SHOWS, this program’s power and purpose extends long beyond Miss Nebraska week.  Allison’s work promoting awareness of our veterans earned her the Miss Nebraska Community Service Award and the Miss America Community Service Award; she also earned the Miracle Maker Award for raising more than $1300 for the Children’s Miracle Network, helping hospitals like Omaha’s Children’s Hospital and Medical Center.  Oh yea, and Allison JUST TURNED 19 in April.  Truly exceptional.

I would argue not one of these women is ‘better’ than the other; each is SENSATIONAL.  They each prepared, volunteered, practiced.. hoping THIS was their year, and their time.  It was only destiny for one–and Alyssa is FABULOUS.  But this is why you see so many girls try again for the crown.. and thank the Lord for that, because they are all deserving, INCREDIBLE women, and bringing them together to recognize them and their accomplishments is uplifting and inspiring to everyone who can be part of it.  WE ARE WOMEN, HEAR US ROAR!!!!

***

Now to the moment I know you all have been waiting for…

The 2nd Annual Brandi Petersen Unofficial Superfan Awards!

( ahem… I’ll wait for your laughter to die down before I proceed..)

The ‘My Life Goal Is To Look Like Carrie Underwood’ Awards…

Again.. the work and service that take place the other 364 days of the year are arguably the most important part of the Miss America Organization.. but I LOVE LOVE LOVE the gowns!!  C’mon.. from dreaming of your wedding gown, to picking out prom dresses, to playing dress up as a little girl, who DOESN’T love beautiful dresses?!? 2015 was simply a RAINBOW of color on the Miss Nebraska stage, and THAT alone made it awesome.  So much diversity; different colors, styles, fits.. and so much elegance!

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Remember how I said Miss Kool-Aid Days Brooke Ludemann’s gown made me gasp?  GASP!!!  OHHH.. this dress.. this moment.. absolutely INCREDIBLE. (Details: Tarik Ediz gown from the Black Swan Dress Boutique in Lincoln)

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Miss Kearney Crane Festival Allison Tietjen.. ANOTHER gown that stole my breath.  Just STUNNING.  (Details: custom Sherri Hill gown from the Winning Crown Boutique in Omaha)

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And boy, those Kearney Crane Festival Directors KNOW THEIR STYLE.. because Miss Kearney Crane Festival’s Outstanding Teen was possibly MY FAVORITE gown of the weekend!  There was just something so very special about Merrilee Prill when she walked on stage in this dress.  The color, the style, HOW she wore it.  I LOVED IT. ( Details: Jovani Fashions gown from the Black Swan Dress Boutique in Lincoln–thanks to owner Joe Bohac for the photo!)

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Miss Northwest’s Outstanding Teen Cherokee Purviance.. what a GORGEOUS choice for her gown!  On stage, this color and the sparkle were just RADIANT.  (Details: a Mac Duggal gown from Hirschfeld’s Prom Shoppe in North Platte–thanks to them for the photo!)

The ‘Holy Crap, Petersen, Put Down That Blizzard’ Awards..

I’d like to show you my reaction to this year’s Miss contestants competing in swimsuit.

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My thanks to Taylor Swift for the assist.

ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL.  This year EXEMPLIFIED that Lifestyle and Fitness is just that–this competition is intended to encourage women to treat their bodies like temples and reach their full physical potential.  AND THESE WOMEN DID.  Abs, biceps, quads for days. This wasn’t about starving, or being the skinniest.  You could SEE their work; the time they spent in the gym and the time they DIDN’T spend at their local fast food spot.

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Miss Omaha Megan Gould was my winner for swimsuit.  I know this girl puts in countless hours of dance and practice as a Nebraska Cornhusker cheerleader, and WOW-did that hard work show!!  Plus Megan was just SOO confident, not conceited in the least, just wonderfully comfortable in her own skin.  You go, Megan!

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Miss Heartland Steffani Jiroux.  This is her profile picture now on Facebook (taken by Kamie Stephen for the North Platte Telegraph), and to me, that’s using restraint.  If I looked like this, I’d make a cardboard cutout of myself to greet people at my front door.  THIS is what happens with 20 years of ballet training and several more as a member of the Creighton University dance team!

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Miss Kearney Crane Festival Allison Tietjen was the Overall Swimsuit Winner at Miss Nebraska this year, and here’s why!  Another absolutely radiant moment in red for the UNL sophomore, and in case you’re wondering, she’s a piano player.. so what you see is the result of sheer hours in the gym and dedication to nutrition!

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And Miss Kool-Aid Days Brooke Ludemann.  Just.. WOW.  MUSCLE ON MUSCLE WITH MUSCLE.  When I messaged Brooke about using this photo, she responded ‘I’m darn proud of those photos!’  AS SHE SHOULD BE!! AH-MAZ-ING!!

STRENGTH, POWER, HEALTH. Are you listening, America? I just read this morning there are more clinically obese people in our country than simply overweight Americans.  Heart disease remains a leading killer.  These women exercised and ate healthy with consistency and self discipline for months, and likely formed a foundation to continue to do so to some extent.  Long after that 10 second walk across stage in a swimsuit, their health is improved, their confidence is boosted, and they’ve empowered and inspired many others. (I’M AT THE TOP OF THAT LIST!) Ladies, you should be so very proud of yourselves.

The Nebraska’s Got Talent Awards..

MY WINNERS FOR TALENT: THIS YEAR’S MISS NEBRASKA’S OUTSTANDING TEEN CONTESTANTS.

BLOWN AWAY.

First of all, CONGRATULATIONS to the other young woman who wrapped up this weekend in North Platte with a state title..

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Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen Steffany Lien is now Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015!  (A 3-peat for Omaha titleholders!)  While Steffany shined all night at the competition, SHE OWNED talent.  America, watch out; when this girl competes for the national title in Orlando this July, she will STUN YOU!

CLICK HERE to see a preview, showing Steffany competing at the World Championships in Italy in April, winning her SIXTH world title.

Steffany does things with a baton that challenge the Laws of Gravity and Physics.  Not only have I never seen her drop a baton in competition, I’ve never seen the girl even ‘almost’ drop one in rehearsal.  She is SENSATIONAL!

Nebraska’s 10th Outstanding Teen was one of several incredibly talented young teenagers who competed in North Platte this year.  Piano players, singers, dancers.. these girls are so young they can’t vote, but they knocked the socks off everyone in the audience Friday night.

Among my favorites (along with Steffany, of course!)..

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..singer Emma Kate Brown, Miss Platte Valley’s Outstanding Teen.  There’s a reason why little girls love her.. because someday she will be the voice of a princess in a Disney movie.  That’s how I described her voice to my husband.  Emma Kate sang ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story and her innate vocal talent is just BEAUTIFUL.  I’m calling it now.. the next animated blockbuster you take your kids to, you will likely hear Emma Kate in the soundtrack! (And a huge CONGRATULATIONS to this beauty as well!  Less than two weeks after being named 2nd Runner Up at Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen, the Elkhorn South student was also named Nebraska’s Best High School Actress, winning an all-expenses paid trip to New York to compete for the National Award!!)

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Grace Heggem, Miss Scotts Bluff County’s Outstanding Teen, was dazzling from start to finish.  She played Tarantella on the piano, her fingers dancing across the keys at the speed of light, and she NAILED it.  Much like ballet, I know nothing about piano, but I can hear a bad note… and I didn’t hear one off-key when Grace performed.  Incredible!

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Emma Keifer, Miss Gering’s Outstanding Teen, was just a joy to watch.  I felt like I was watching an act from So You Think You Can Dance (and you all know what a freak I am about that show!!) Emma tapped.. up and down STAIRS.  Her energy was just OFF THE CHARTS.  Emma, you would’ve made Nigel proud!

And finally, though she wasn’t competing for a title, this performance was MY FAVORITE TALENT PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK..

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THE WATER CUPS DANCE.  Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2014 Morgan Holen, performing the same dance her mother Jodi did as Miss Nebraska 1988 at the Miss America pageant that year.  Balancing three cups of water on her hands and forehead, Morgan bent backward, forward, down into splits, up from splits… all without spilling a drop.  You could’ve heard a PIN drop in the auditorium, as hundreds of us collectively held our breath through this performance.  ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE..  just like Morgan.  Many of us shed tears as she took her final walk as our state titleholder.. mine started to fall as her proud daddy, Brad, handed her a bouquet of flowers at the bottom of the Miss Nebraska stage.  The sky is the limit for this young woman–you WILL see her again.

The Brittany Jeffers Awards for Super Awesomeness

We all have someone we just ADMIRE.. their style, their confidence, just because THEY ARE AWESOME.  Some of mine: one of my best friends Jenni Rohacik who always looks so good she could host E!, my neighbor Brittni Madden who can take a picture off Pinterest and make a project look like it cost thousands of dollars.. and my fellow anchor/reporter/forever Miss Omaha Brittany Jeffers-Hannema, who I swear is fabulous, in every way possible, 24/7.  (And now that I’ve declared my obsession with these ladies.. they may all be working on protection orders..) THESE GIRLS ARE JUST AWESOME!  Brittany gets the award named after her because she had to work rather than attend the Miss Nebraska pageant this year.. she may have been on air in Oklahoma, but her heart was in North Platte!

Two young ladies made a huge impression on me this year.. two teens who I didn’t know prior to this year’s pageant.

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Shelby Blundell, Miss Chadron’s Outstanding Teen, was the youngest and tiniest of ALL of this year’s contestants, Miss and Teen.  She was also Contestant #1 in the competition, a tough draw; you set the bar for the judges, you are the first contestant both that panel and the audience will see.  Shelby rose to the challenge, nailing her song in talent, and impressing the hell out of me during her on stage question.  Shelby was asked a very tough question, whether LGBTQ issues should be discussed at school in the classroom or in group/activity settings, or if those topics are best left for family and group discussion outside of school.  Without hesitation, tiny Shelby answered confidently and quickly, sharing her opinions without pause.  That’s a tough issue for politicians and public leaders to address, and often we see adults avoiding giving a clear answer.  This young woman tackled the issue head on, and agree with her or not, it was refreshing to see such a young person stand tall and share her opinion.

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I was also SO very impressed with Allison Baird, Miss Western Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.  For the second year in a row, Allison was named 1st Runner Up in the teen competition.  I’ve touched on this before.. as exhilarating as it is to hear your name called as a new titleholder.. it is incredibly disappointing when all of that work does not result in that win.  Allison’s now been through that twice.. coming ever so close both times.  BUT.. the moment that curtain closed after Steffany was crowned, when the spotlights were off and no one was watching her (except me, the nosy emcee/reporter backstage), Allison was the first one to smile and hug Steffany.  She was also the first to hug Morgan last year–and not just the cordial ‘arm around her, pat pat pat’ hug.. but a genuine embrace, wishing a friend well.  It’s the moments you think no one is looking when your true character is revealed.  Allison Baird is an exceptional young lady.  A gorgeous voice.  Mature and smart.  Beautiful.  And in those moments, when I can only imagine how her heart was breaking, she showed class and selflessness, to celebrate Steffany’s moment.  That’s something you don’t often see in adults, let alone a young woman just entering her senior year of high school.  Again, these competitions are not about choosing ‘who is the best’, but who is right for the position at that exact moment in time.  YOU ARE A WINNER, ALLISON.. your future is so very bright.

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So did you pick up on that ’emcee/reporter’ note?  I had the GREAT honor of co-emceeing this year’s Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen pageant with this beauty, my final Awesomeness Award Winner, Jessica States!  A) She can sing REALLY well  B) She’s a born leader, holding a respected position with Junior Achievement of Lincoln  C) She was THE FIRST Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen in 2005!

AND, she was SUCH A GREAT co-host!!!  We had such a terrific time, and I hope the audience did, too!  (And thank you to Joe Bohac and the Black Swan Dress Boutique for providing our gorgeous gowns for the evening!)

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#MNOT2015.  Trending.

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What a terrific, empowering week of incredible women and the people who support them.

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I enjoyed every single moment, and CAN’T WAIT until next year to do it all over again!  AND, I NEED to mention what these girls took away from Miss Nebraska (in addition to their own memories..)

MORE THAN $42,800 IN CASH AWARDS

AND MORE THAN $400,455 IN OFFERED COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIPS.

But hey, it’s just a silly scholarship pageant, right?

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One final message to wrap up this post, and this year’s 2015 Miss Nebraska series..

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I was SO very honored and humbled to receive this year’s Miss Nebraska Volunteer of the Year Award.

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU to all of you who have read these blogs and offered your congratulations.  I’m still mystified and elated that so many people check in to read my work, and to receive such an incredible honor for it is just a thrill.  THANK YOU.

To all 24 of the young ladies who competed in North Platte, YOU EMPOWER ME. You are the future of our state, and our country, and that makes me so very proud.  CONGRATULATIONS Alyssa, Steffany, and every young woman taking a chance to set an example, be a role model, and to just SPARKLE.

No matter what you do next, crown or not, go out into the world and continue to ROAR.

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 Click here to learn more about the Miss Nebraska Organization, and the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant.  You can also visit Miss Nebraska on Facebook, follow the pageant on Twitter, and follow the pageant on Instagram.

To read more about the Miss Nebraska, and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Class of 2014, click on the ‘There She Is’ link at the top of the page.

When I See You Smile

There are some people in the world who can literally light up a room with their smile.  Take one of my best friends, Melissa.. no matter where we are or what time we are at in our lives, her smile makes everyone around her smile.  She is PURE JOY, pure sheer goodness, and that positivity just radiates out of her.

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My best friends and I at Omaha Fashion Week.  Melissa is the hottie second from the right.  Thanks to Herb Thompson for the photo!

I first saw the young lady you’re about to meet when she competed in the Miss Omaha/Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen pageant last fall, where she finished 1st Runner Up.  From that night on, I continued to follow her over social media through the pageant where she would win her own title, and I don’t think this teen HAS EVER STOPPED SMILING.

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MISS PLATTE VALLEY’S OUTSTANDING TEEN 2015 EMMA KATE BROWN

(Photo courtesy J Allen Photography)

Now, as I read my interview with Emma Kate and see what’s behind that smile, her attitude not only inspires me.. she’s kinda knocking my socks off.  Emma Kate is fighting two chronic illnesses, Type 1 Diabetes and Celiac Disease.

“I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease when I was three years old, so we’ve been doing gluten free at our house before it was trendy,” joked Emma Kate.  “I cannot eat wheat, barley, oats, malt or flour.”  (For more on what Celiac Disease is, click here to read my interview with Miss Crane Festival 2014 & Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2012 Lianna Prill.)

Emma Kate has also been an ambassador for Diabetes awareness and research long before her pageant days, appearing on KETV First News for an interview with John Oakey several years ago.

“Something else unique about me is my love for public speaking!  I had a great time talking with John Oakey and showing him my dance moves,” said Emma Kate.  “I wasn’t nervous a bit, but I do think my interview skills have improved.”

She’s getting plenty of practice; Emma Kate is also a youth ambassador for the JDRF (formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation).

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Emma Kate: ‘Had a great time this morning volunteering for my favorite group, the JDRF. Met this little girl who was diagnosed with diabetes two months ago. She inspires me by how strong she is facing such a life changing disease. Loved getting to talk about my story and hearing hers.’

“My platform is turning Type 1 into Type None and it is about raising awareness and funding for a cure to Type 1 Diabetes,”
said Emma Kate.  “[It] allows me to tell my story to businesses in the area.  I also volunteer at JDRF events throughout the year.”

(For more about Diabetes and fundraising efforts in the Omaha area, click here to read my interview with former Husker Jay Foreman regarding his work with the Foreman Foundation, as well as Diabetes services through Nebraska Medicine.)

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Until I heard about all of this from Emma Kate during our interview, I had NO IDEA she faced challenges like this.  The 16-year old junior at Elkhorn South High School is on the go NONSTOP, participating on the dance team, in show choir, concert choir, in speech and in National Honor Society.  This year alone, Emma Kate starred in Shrek the Musical as Princess Fiona, and took part in a grueling competition schedule with Elkhorn South Blackout (the varsity show choir), including trips to regionals and then nationals in Chicago.

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And off stage, when she’s not volunteering, there’s yet ANOTHER side to this girl.

“Even thought I am super focused and goal-driven, I love to get lost in a great book,” said Emma Kate.  “I love the ‘Matched’ series, the ‘Selection’ series and the ‘Red Queen’ series.  One of my proudest moments would be when I recently got a group of my friends to start reading as much as I do.  Now we talk about books at our lunch table and it’s so much fun.”

One of those friends is Emma Kate’s fellow dance team member and Blackout star, Morgan Holen, the current Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.

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“Morgan encouraged me to compete in an upcoming pageant.  I was hooked after my first pageant experience in November.  I was so impressed by the whole organization that I knew I wanted to take part in it,” said Emma Kate.  “I enjoy meeting like-minded, successful girls my age and learning about their platforms and experiences.  All the girls are so kind and I have made lifelong friends.”

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That is Emma Kate’s message to other teens who may read this; she wants to encourage them just as Morgan encouraged her.

“This program is relevant because there are more girls like me and other contestants who can benefit from the scholarships, volunteer opportunities and sisterhood of the pageants.”

I agree with Emma Kate on the positives that come from the Miss America Organization.  I DISAGREE with her that there are other girls like her.  That smile is simply one of a kind; welcoming, full of life, excited about what every day could bring.  She’s got ‘Outstanding’ on that sash for a reason.. and Emma Kate Brown is ready to prove it in North Platte.

Emma Kate Dance Team Pic (original)

(Photo courtesy Deyo’s Photography)

Follow Miss Platte Valley’s Outstanding Teen Emma Kate Brown, and contact Emma Kate for appearances or events via Facebook, Instagram and on Twitter.

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The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant will take place June 5, 2015 in North Platte.  Click here to visit the organization’s website or the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant on Facebook and on Twitter.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Northwest 2015 LaRissa McKean

NEXT.. Miss Gering 2015 Kaylee Carlberg

To read more about the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Class of 2014, click on the ‘There She Is’ link at the top of the page.