I left my heart in Kewanee

Teyanna and her escort practice the opening dance

Teyanna and her escort practice the opening dance

Three months ago, I would not have been able to point out Kewanee, Illinois on a map. Two weeks ago, I left my heart there.

Back in May I wrote a post about the Chicago premiere of the HBO documentary Miss You Can Do It. The event changed my life, to say the least. With tear-filled eyes I vowed to myself that it would not be the end of my work with Miss You Can Do It, and I was not alone. The very next day at the office, two colleagues joined me to plan our trip to Kewanee for the 10th annual pageant.

The three of us drove through cornfields and stormy sky’s en route to the event’s dress rehearsal on Friday, July 26. The Kewanee High School auditorium had been transformed into a replica of the Miss USA stage. Christina Aguilera and Pitbull’s latest song blasted through the speakers, glittering light-up streamers filled the room, and trophies (some nearly as tall as me!) lined the stage. I had to remind myself that I was at an auditorium in the heartland, not in Las Vegas.

We were greeted by pageant creator Abbey Curran, who explained that the older girls, the “Miss” contestants (ages 17-25), were working on the opening number choreography. Abbey encouraged us to have fun and root the girls on, so we cheered with every shimmy and turn they did. We couldn’t resist learning the dance ourselves and mirroring the contestants: I still break out the dance any time I hear the song Feel this Moment. We’ve even broken out the moves at the office.

The contestants came from all over the country, and it was amazing to witness them transform from timid to dancing divas in just an hour’s time. Even more special is the way the girls connect to Abbey. It’s clear that she is an inspiration to them. Abbey’s goal with the older girls was to make them feel like beautiful teens and twenty-somethings, and when you see them grinning ear-to-ear while making their confident moves, it’s clear that she succeeded.

During the pageant kick off. The “Miss” girls were joined by the 40 younger contestants and their families. Abbey greeted the enthusiastic crowd with a video of encouragement from a special guest: Katie Couric popped up on the screen to wish the girls good luck. I think I may have screamed louder than anyone else — I have a minor (okay, major) Katie Couric obsession. Abbey was a guest on Katie’s talk show once and obviously left a huge impression.

Ali Shanks and her escort practice for the opening number

Ali and her escort practice the opening number

Next came time for Abbey to introduce the pageant’s staff and this year’s handsome escorts. Each girl, donned in her finest casual attire, had the chance to strike a pose and strut across the stage. After the rehearsal we caught up with a couple of our Easter Seals families: the Alfords from Easter Seals ARC of Northeast Indiana, and the Shanks from Easter Seals Southwestern Indiana. Both expressed what a positive impact the pageant has had on their families. It’s fun for the girls, and it can serve as a positive distraction from the challenging lives these special families lead sometimes.

Miss You Can Do It has had a positive impact on me, too: it’s completely changed my perceptions of beauty. I’ve learned that true beauty is the beaming smile and glow of a young girl who feels pretty for the first time in her life.

On the way home from Kewanee, our cheeks ached from smiling, and our palms were numb from clapping, too. I have Miss You Can Do It and Easter Seals to thank for the two best days of my summer, and I can’t wait to see what next year’s pageant will bring.


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