I wanted to share this story with you all so I could share the impact that this job has on the girl who serves as Miss Tennessee Volunteer and so that others can understand why this position is so vital for our states' children. I hope you enjoy hearing about Matthew as much as I loved visiting with him!
All my love,
The third week of June has always held a special place in my heart and has had a reserved spot on my calendar for six years now—and will continue to hold that spot, because this program is what molded me into the woman I am today.
Reflecting on this year, it’s kind of funny how everything comes full circle. This year, I had the chance to represent our state at the Miss America pageant—I mean COMPETITION…sorry – in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I could not have planned for this to happen, but When I arrived at my hotel, the song “Goin’ To Jackson” by Johnny Cash was Playing over the speakers outside of the lobby. I kept thinking “YES I’m ready let’s GO.”
To tell you a little bit about my journey that led me here, I want to explain what the last few years have been like.
I began competing for the title of Miss Tennessee six years ago, as a seventeen-year-old high school senior. I never could have imagined that one day, I would obtain two prestigious state titles in one year! I had never competed in a pageant before and had no idea what I was getting myself into… but after my first competition, I was bitten by the pageant bug and fell head over heels in love with this amazing program.
I competed in 6 preliminary competitions until I won my first title of Miss Memphis, when I had just turned 18 and was a freshman at the University of Mississippi.
My first year at Miss Tennessee, I didn’t even crack the top 15—it was a huge learning curve and I had a lot to understand before I could handle the job that this title requires! The next year, I won a preliminary title in Johnson City, more than 8 hours from my hometown in Memphis.
My mom and I didn’t even know where Johnson City was when we found out about the pageant—but we found out there was a $5,000 Scholarship involved and a massive prize package, so off to Johnson City we went! That year I learned so much about what it was like to travel from one end of Tennessee to the other, what kind of planning and commitment that takes, and learned so much about what the job entails and how much preparation is involved with a responsibility like this.
That year I placed 2ndrunner up to Miss Tennessee, and was even able to go to the Miss America pageant to cheer for Hannah Robison as she placed in the top 7 and represented our state that year. The following year I held another title in the Johnson City area, returned to Miss Tennessee, and placed 3rdrunner up. I was devastated that year – I felt like I’d gone backwards—I thought I’d still worked hard, what had I done wrong? I took some time to reflect and make a decision, and decided that I wanted this job. And I my desire to achieve my dreams was stronger than my fear of failure. So that year, I won the title of Miss Scenic City and represented the Chattanooga area at Miss Tennessee. That year I was able to graduate from College debt free, because of the more than $49,000 in scholarship I’ve earned thus far from participating in Tennessee’s program. That summer, I came back to Jackson and placed 1strunner up. As a new graduate, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do, and I’d known that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree, but I didn’t think I’d be pursuing it immediately – but thanks to the $10,000 I won that year, I was able to go on to my Master’s degree that fall. I made my decision, took the GRE, called UT Chattanooga’s admission office, found an apartment, and moved two weeks later after making that decision, all the way to Chattanooga – 5 hours from my family – and began in the Master’s of Business program as well as the data analytics certification program. I knew about five people when I moved to Chattanooga and it was, by far, one of the biggest risks I have ever taken. So while I’d made the decision and applied to UTC’s graduate program…I was really going on a whim, in some sense. I remember getting the email that I had been accepted as I was at a stoplight before getting on the interstate to drive to my new home—talk about a leap of faith, haha! That year I grew more than I knew possible. I earned the title of Miss Chattanooga and worked day and night to understand and execute the job of Miss TN (Volunteer) on a local level, so that I could know day to day, what it takes and know that when I entered the state competition, that I was ready and I could handle it. I visited our local CMN Hospital of Erlanger Children’s ever other week, I interned with our local Alzheimer’s Association office, I worked part time and went to class, and I prepared every single day so that I could be ready for this job. This past summer, I was so excited that work finally paid off and I was chosen to be Miss Tennessee. Now a lot has happened between last June and now, but I am so thrilled to be back in Jackson with the same people I began this journey with, and with more pride and faith in this program than ever.
Jackson, Tennessee has truly felt like home to me this year. I have felt so embraced by the community here, by the people I see when I’m out running an errand, or when I’ve been appearing in an official capacity, it’s always felt like coming home. I am a proud West Tennessean, but grew up about an hour down the road in Memphis—and I love my hometown, but I have been so overwhelmed by the compassion and kindness I’ve been shown in this City.
I don’t know of any other city that could have embraced this program quite like Jackson has. The volunteers give up their vacation time to help run the dressing room, or zip us into our gowns, or to make sure we’re safe and taken care of… I have truly felt so embraced over the last 6 years and so welcomed every time I came to Jackson. Pageant week was and will always be something I’ve looked forward to, because I knew I could always find a friend or familiar face no matter where I went or what I was doing in Jackson.
To those of you that sponsor and support our program, I want to thank you for all you do—you all know that you change the lives of one young woman who is chosen to wear this *FABULOUS AND NEW!* crown this year—but you change the lives of each of the young women sitting in here today. More than that, you enable them to change the lives of communities in our state—you enable them to better their own lives… but to better the lives of the people they live with and work with and go to school with…by believing in the education and mobilization of young women-- you are believing in their future and in our state’s future. By touching just one life through your support of this program, you are impacting hundreds, if not thousands, more. I can attest to that in my own life, after this last year on my statewide school tour where I spoke about “RESPECT” as the Governor’s Character Education Spokesperson. By believing in me and supporting my year of service… This year you allowed me to speak to more than SEVENTY thousand children across our great state. (70,381 to be exact!!)
This year, I travelled more than 80,000 miles to speak to students all across our state about the Character trait of respect, and why that’s important in their own personal lives and relationships. We talk about the importance of respecting our friends—to stand up for our friends and to treat them the way that we want to be treated, to be respectful to our families, even when that’s hard, and to respect ourselves by making good choices. I talk to them about the decisions they make day to day, and how they are the only people that truly live with the consequences of their actions—and that they are the only ones who can decide what choices they will make for themselves.
I remember one time, I had a little girl yell out, after we’d talked about outcomes of actions, at the top of her lungs, “YOU MEAN LIKE KARMA?!!!” it’s REALLY amazing what they pick up at such a young age???
I’ve had some hilarious experiences this year when I speak at our schools – I usually speak about respecting our Friends, Our families, and then ourselves. Every now and again I have a student ask “But what about respecting God and Jesus?” which is the cutest thing EVER.
But I have also had countless experiences that remind me why this position matters so much, and why this program matters so much. Not just to me or the volunteers you see here today, or even just to the women competing, but to the thousands and thousands of people that are impacted by this position every single year.
In Claiborne County, I had one little boy, at my very last presentation of the day—I think it was a six school presentation schedule on that particular day—who sat off to the side in his teacher’s lap during the presentation. And I noticed him off to the side, he didn’t raise his hand when I asked for volunteers, and didn’t raise his hand again when I asked if anyone had questions…
but at the end, as the classes were dismissing he came down to the front and sat on the edge of the bleachers.
So I looked at him and gestured for him to come over, and a couple classmates said “no, Matthew, don’t bother Miss Tennessee!” but I asked little Matthew to come over to me. I crouched down on the ground so I could look him in the eye and asked
“Matthew, did you have any questions for me?” He shook his head no, so I asked again “are you sure? Nothing at all?” he shook his head no again and said “I just wanna go home.” So I said “I’m sorry buddy, do you not feel well? Can I help you find your teacher to tell her?” and he looked up at me and grinned – and said
“No …I wanna go home with YOU!”
and before I knew it, he had put his arms around my neck and jumped into my lap and had his head nuzzled under my chin. I didn’t expect that reaction, so I was a tad thrown off balance, but I picked up Matthew and walked over to the bleachers and he stayed in my lap for a little while, and told me about his classes and how he liked to play soccer and that he loves dogs that are as big as he is….
Eventually Matthew’s class was dismissed, so I held his hand and walked him over to his teacher where they were lining up. Matthew squeezed my hand and said “So you’re gonna come back soon, right?”
At this point I want to adopt this little blonde angel so I choked back the tears I felt coming on and answered him, “No sweetie, but I promise you I’m gonna send you a great Miss Tennessee to come visit you next year. And you’re gonna love her! And I promise she will come back to give you hugs and listen to you, I promise.” Matthew nodded and gave me one last hug before running off with his class.
I took a deep breath to keep the tears from escaping, and sat down on the bleachers before it was time to go.
One of the teachers came up to me with tears in her eyes and told me that Matthew was a special needs student who was also a foster child.
He really did want to go home with me. He had gotten in the habit of asking teacher at the school to take him home…until one finally did.
She is now his adoptive mother and Matthew is in a stable, loving home environment.
But that those few minutes of listening and hugs and a very important promise … that meant more to him than she could explain.
And I say all that to say, to whoever is crowned next, whichever one of you sitting in this room that I have the honor to crown…I need you to help me keep that promise.
Because there are thousands of children out there just like Matthew that need you to believe in them.
That need you to hug them and stay later than you expected and longer than you probably wanted—but Miss Tennessee Volunteer – whoever you are—they need you. They might not have anyone at home that is telling them they matter. And that they love them very much. And that they believe in their dreams. I need you to tell them those things and to truly, TRULY believe in them! Because I’ve promised lots of little ones like Matthew that you’re coming.
They’re counting on you. And you have this amazing opportunity to let little boys and girls all across our state know that they can do anything they set their minds to, if they work hard and believe in themselves…because you believe in them.
By believing in me and providing so many opportunities, this program has helped me to develop a vision far beyond what I thought I could achieve. This program has helped me realize what I want to do with my life. That I want to pursue a career in lobbying for healthcare initiatives and educational standards.
You have helped me realized my passions and my purpose by allowing me to excel in this program and the opportunities it has given me!
This year has not only given me the tools to realize my dreams and aspirations, but opened my eyes to the “why” behind it and given me a passion to fuel those dreams and aspirations. You’ve given me the tools to believe in myself, so that I can encourage our children to believe in their dreams too.
By believing in this program, you all are choosing to believe in the young women sitting at your tables today. You are choosing to believe in the communities they impact through their service. You are choosing to believe in the children of Tennessee and in our state’s future. This program is truly the first time I believe in myself and realized what I was capable of achieving, and I do not know where my life would be without this program. Thank you for helping me believe in myself and my dreams.
But I also want to say Thank you so much for being a part of helping not just me to achieve my dreams, but supporting each and every girl in here to achieve hers, as well.
It feels so good to be back home!