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I’m writing this with a cold beer to my right on a Wednesday night. For the last three days, I’ve felt tears welling behind my eyes. Every moment I’m not living life to the fullest, not DOING something, I feel like I’m wasting.

My friend David is dying.

When I shared David’s story on this blog, I was still in TV. That alone feels like a lifetime ago, and that point in his journey felt life a lifetime since his diagnosis. He’s written a book. He’s travelled the world. He’s celebrated 11 years of life since doctors told him a brain tumor would kill him in five. For awhile, it was easy to say David **had cancer. Past tense. He’d beaten it. He’d laughed in it’s face, defeated it with an arsenal of positivity and sheer will, and shared his story to inspire and help others.

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Fuck you, cancer. FUCK YOU. Mom, I know you’re reading this and I’m sorry for swearing, but there is truly no other phrase that accurately fits how I feel about this disease.

It stole Cody from us. I miss his laugh, karaoke duets, how he made my husband smile, and seeing his soul-deep love for our dear friend, Darbi. Brain cancer stole Evan Sharp, a baseball-loving little boy from Omaha, robbed of school and running carefree with his friends on the field. It stole Heather Roberts, a young professional devoted to her Omaha Mavericks, who have now raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in her name.

David’s sister, Heather, emailed me and asked me to put together a video for his girls. They are so little… ask yourself what you remember from Kindergarten?? What will these three big eyed, blonde angels remember about the father who loved them with all of his heart?

For Marian, for Viola, for Etta, for Lori, for DAVID: This is for you.

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David always had a spark. There was something MORE about him. Always the guy making jokes, the guy who wore plaid when everyone else wore black, the guy who was the ever rare ‘part of every group’ guy – active in speech, band and theater, so he was popular with the Drama Dorks, played golf and baseball and ran cross country, so he had the ‘cool’ friends right alongside us. He was the center of attention in every circle he ran in. No matter what the situation, David stood out – trying to make someone laugh, trying to be something extraordinary.

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Complete disclosure – David was my first ‘boyfriend’, keeping in mind we didn’t go on dates, hold hands in hallways, or anything else. I totally ditched my junior year Homecoming date AT THE DANCE for David (Jim, my sincere apologies – still feel super bad about this. Shade.) The cool thing was, after the high school drama (guys, he left me for a girl on POM SQUAD. Devastation! David – I hope this makes you laugh, I still remember that blonde hussy’s name!!), we were friends again by senior year.

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I remember when we ripped a microphone off of Mike Unrein’s body, taped there to stay put under his costume for ‘The Nerd’. Mike was SUPER hairy.. and his pain was hilarious.

I remember going to Mock Trial nationals in St. Louis (State Champs!!), when he and Bobby busted into Cassie and I’s hotel room and literally carried my wimpy ass to the pool and threw me in. I hadn’t wanted to get my hair messed up. Too bad.

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I remember watching him play a trumpet solo in front of the entire student body at a home football game during halftime, and feeling immense pride for my friend, shining bright in that moment in time.

Baseball at Seymour Smith. Being crowned Prom Prince with Melissa. Sitting on Lauren’s steps inside her house at one of countless graduation parties in May of 1999.

Every moment was MORE. Nothing was ‘JUST’. With David, everything was the superlative – funnier, more creative, bigger, deeper, louder and memorable.

Of course, he was featured in Election, got his own trailer, and became bff’s with Matthew and Reese.

Of course, he went on to marry a supermodel wife and started to travel the world with his start-up company, fueled by his big ideas and vision.

Of course, when he decided to write a book, people from around the world would donate tens of thousands of dollars to support him and make it happen. OF COURSE.

Girls, your Daddy was NEVER ordinary. Not one day.

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I wrote my first blog post about David in 2014. He was in the very early stages of writing his book – maybe even just outlining it at that point. I knew he had battled cancer in an unorthodox fashion – attempting every method in the book OTHER than chemo. Chinese medicine, herbs, religion, going green, saunas, etc. I knew he had been divorced but had no idea of the loneliness and desertion that had come along with it. I knew fate brought him and Lori together, but had no idea the details of how that came to be. David bravely bared his soul in his book, Thank you Kung Fu, to hopefully inspire others facing cancer, surprises in life, devastation through divorce.. WHATEVER.. he didn’t sugarcoat anything, but he also found positive in everything.

When I told my Mom last weekend that David may be entering his final weeks, she, too, focused on the positive: he had so much more time than anyone thought. My husband talked about David’s three beautiful daughters that may never have been.

I think of Lori, and this is when my tears fall. She, too, has had her own journey of challenges, heartbreak, plot turns and more. WHY. WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY. Why can’t they have the fairytale ending where POOF?!? Cancer is gone? Happily ever after? Lori deserves that. I don’t know her well but here’s what I see… the ying to David’s yang. The independent, one of a kind, unicorn light that is just SPECIAL. I praise God for bringing these two together… perhaps, no, of course.. this was always His plan.

David was given 5 years… nope.

They were both told no children… they have 3.

They found each other. THEY WERE MEANT TO BE TOGETHER. What is the meaning of life? TO LOVE. TO LOVE. Because I am in a bar and surrounded by other humans… I will only say my husband is literally, half of my soul. He is my rock, he is my partner, he was meant to be mine. We are raising two beautiful boys and someday, when they are grown and off on their own journeys, we will have each other – only each other, blessedly each other, for now and forever. To lose him… I would lose half of myself. For this, Lori, I pray for you. Sometimes more than I pray for David, because I believe he is going to Heaven without pain or fear.

<<My waitress just asked if I was ok because I am now bawling. That’s where we are at right now.>>

Girls, your Momma is a LADY BOSS. She is a fighter. She is a leader. She is kind and cool and amazing. She is strength and honor and beauty personified. Every day.

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Westside was looking for a guest speaker to inspire our staff members to kick off the 2018-2019 school year. I pitched several ideas to my senior leadership team, including David. My high school friend who had proved doctors wrong, written an incredible book, and was now giving motivational speeches around the country; maybe he would be a good fit to come home and inspire our staff? August of 2018, David came to Westside High School to share his story. Thank you, Kung Fu – how he found how he had a hidden brain tumor through being his typical ‘class clown’ self and doing a mock kung fu move at a conference. How through the coming months/years of finding an alternative to his death sentence, his then-wife decided upon a different path. How he found Lori, and with her, they created a new, unexpected life. How throughout every hurdle and challenge, he chose positivity, humor, a smile, and gratitude. Our staff of 500+ gave him a standing ovation. Many left in tears, and approached David after thanking him for sharing his story. He told me afterwards he experienced multiple seizures on stage DURING his half hour speech. He knew beforehand it might happen… but it didn’t scare him, didn’t detract him from sharing his story. He just kept going, smiling throughout. He was just fine.

I met David and Lori for coffee after. They talked about the type of beans and coffee used at the locally owned coffee shop we were at, thinking of their coffee shop back home in Michigan. Everything was normal. Old friends catching up. It was fine – everything was just fine.

David held a book reading that evening at the Bookworm. Lauren. Gail. Jay. All of these high school friends I hadn’t seen in so long, coming to support David. His girls came at the end – two little princesses in dress up clothes; their baby sister with Grandma in Papillion, where David and I grew up. It was fine – he was fine. He was promoting his book.

The icing on the cake – surgery. David found a miracle surgeon in Texas just months later who thought she could remove the ‘inoperable brain tumor’. He stayed awake the whole surgery talking to Lori. She removed the majority of it! MIRACLE!!! Again – has this all been a dream?!? It’s gone!! David and Lori – watching their three babies grow up with their white picket fence, drinking beers on their front porch. It was fine – he was fine.

June 4.

A note from David:

Hello everyone. We have received some difficult news about my health recently. My cancer has spread into other parts of my brain and spine. At this point, the doctors have estimated I have 4-6 weeks. Last week after a brain scan they first estimated four months, but when they saw the cancer on my spine this week, they reduced it significantly. 

Now that this is all very present, I want you to know that I am not scared of death. Lori and I have full confidence in the future of our family. She will continue to be an amazing mother to our girls. I am so grateful for Marian, Viola, and Etta. ❤️❤️❤️

Marian, I see in your face – I have seen it in your Momma and Daddy’s posts from Day One – you will take no prisoners and conquer the world. You are your Father’s daughter.

Viola – you are proof of the miracle that was MEANT TO BE – the true love between your Momma and Daddy. You are unique, and everything your parents love: music, nature, poetry in word and beyond.

Etta – your Daddy was the only boy. Your Momma is the only girl. Your name means ‘ruler of the home’. Just look at your perfect face!?! Your Daddy will be smiling on you and proud of you every day of your life.

***

Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” My question: why does God take all of the good people? Why children and teens who have so much innocence and desire to learn, why them? Why people like Cody, who just say it like it is in the midst of so much BS – who refresh us with honesty, love and goodness? I don’t wish death on anyone, but when we are surrounded by so much hate, idiocy, ill will towards others and each other… why Cody. Why Evan. Why Heather. WHY DAVID.

Baby girls – grow up knowing your Dad wanted to change the world, and he was doing it in so many places including here in Omaha, Nebraska and your home of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A lot of people TALK; very few DO. Your Dad was a doer. A lot of people BOAST; very few have what it takes. Your Mom DOES.

Lori – from one wife to another, you are in my prayers. Every day.

David – we have one life. ONE. You have lived it with zest, humor, drive, vision, flair. You wake up every day and live TO THE MAX. I am not mad at God – I am thanking him for introducing you to my life and giving you to the world. So many people are dealt a hand, and crumple and cry. They blame others. They lie down and give up. You fought – you laughed – you used your lessons to inspire others – you never lost sight of what matters, LOVE, for your wife and your girls. You have given me not only great memories, but new perspective.

Because life is short. But sweet for certain.”

David, do you still love Dave Matthews Band? My husband met him backstage once – as cool in person as he seems on stage. Dave gave the quote mentioned above. LIFE IS SHORT. But oh, how sweet. How many of us don’t see that? We focus on the negative. You have always focused on the positive.

David, you continue to inspire me every day. I am thankful for you. You have made a difference in this world to everyone you have touched, and your legacy will live on. Jump, David, Jump – from one challenge to the next, from here to your next adventure.

Cheers to you, my friend.

***

The Wenzel family is sharing updates and accepting any donations their loved ones are willing to provide, anticipating costs in the coming weeks and months. CLICK HERE to follow their CaringBridge page.

I also highly recommend anyone and everyone to buy and read David’s book, Thank you Kung Fu, available online through most mass retailers. CLICK HERE to purchase his book online.

Stars At Night

Well hi there.

My name is Brandi. Have we met?

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It’s been 10 months since I’ve written. If I’m being honest with myself.. it’s been closer to two years. These days, I wear a lot of ball caps, not a lot of makeup, and I rarely take two steps without my sidekick at my heels (#Chester).

For a long time now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought ‘wow – what an amazing story. Someone should write about that. I should write about that.’ Yet, I haven’t cracked open this blog. Why? Well, LIFE. And I’m a huge jerk for writing that, because.. really, Brandi?!? I am BLESSED beyond measure. Life is a gift.

When I write, life is even better – I appreciate more, I feel inspired, and I view things differently because of hearing the stories of others. I hope that through sharing the stories that have impacted me, I am then impacting someone else. Maybe you’ll support a person, cause or business. Maybe you’ll go about your day with a little more pep in your step, inspired or encouraged by the experiences of others. And maybe you will view the world, your neighbors, and in today’s case, the stars, a little differently.

So how ’bout that Corona?? Sh@*.. where to even start. March 6: I was sitting next to a colleague, Dr. Enid Schonewise, at an event at Westside High School. I saw the alert, “Nebraska has first confirmed COVID-19 case.” I passed my phone over to Enid to show her. Her response: “here we go.” We had already been planning for the long-shot-worst-case-scenario of schools being shut down for a few weeks. Still, I never imagined  the unprecedented magnitude of this invisible threat. Schools shut down for the remainder of the school year. All major sports cancelling seasons – the Olympic Games being postponed. Things so many of us were used to and took for granted like birthday parties, ample grocery store supplies, even playing at parks with our kids… gone within weeks.

As Enid, myself, and the rest of the Omaha area found out that Friday afternoon the virus was here, my high school friend and business owner Liz Lilla knew, at that moment, that everything in her life would change.

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Lillas

I have been creeping on Liz’s Facebook page to find some high school pictures, but here’s the thing – SHE LOOKS EXACTLY THE SAME AS SHE DID 20 YEARS AGO. Liz was one year older than me but I think we spent every school day together (and then some) for a solid two years. We dedicated ourselves to drama, choir, and speech.. and all of the shenanigans that I remember just as much as the activities themselves. That night after ‘Grease’ rehearsal the main cast all became snowbound in my basement. Riding Ollie the Trolly for 1998 Prom. The countless times ‘a few’ of us caravaned to Liz’s house for Mrs. Hladky’s world-famous homemade french onion soup.

I’m gonna need a minute dreaming about that soup…

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Ok, I’m back. Liz was awesome. Liz IS awesome. Kind, positive, caring, someone everyone wanted to be around. Her husband, Erik, was also a PLHS Monarch, but I didn’t know him well back then… he was the super cool soccer guy who was also BRILLIANT. I think his ACT was like 52 or something. Liz and Erik dated, got married, were attending college (Liz, to become an Occupational Therapist), and Erik popped another question… “can we open a gym?”

Liz had been a gymnast and coach. Erik was an athlete and a damn good personal trainer (I actually hired Erik a few times over the years to whip me into shape.) Still… opening a gym? Starting a new business? No easy feat. Have you ever watched gymnastics? There’s a lot of equipment. And mats. And chalk. A LOT of chalk. Where does one even begin??

In 2006, just as their family was growing, Erik and Liz rented out 1200 square feet in a Millard strip mall (right next to what is now the Corner Kick restaurant) and Metro Stars Gymnastics was born. Liz, a Nebraska Occupational Therapy Practitioner of the Year, made sure they provided opportunities for special needs children, as well as typically developing kiddos. They started with just five students.

“We bought a balance beam and mats at a high school auction,” says Liz. “We spent about $50. We were mudding walls on Christmas Eve, building a website, creating a business plan, everything.”

Liz and Erik Lilla literally made their dreams happen themselves through hard work, sweat, planning and vision. They became my go-to’s for my TV reporter needs, not just because I knew them, they were articulate and easy to work with, but they KNEW that it was a sound, strategic move to get publicity and awareness for their company, and were always willing to help. (Also, their kids were freaking cute. I feel like I still owe Katie and Juliette some kind of compensation for how often I used them in stories.)

Over the next 13 years, Metro Stars Gymnastics grew in size, client base, and reputation. Liz and Erik earned respect across the entire US gymnastics community through their incomparable work ethic, sound and smart business decisions, and a never-changing focus to support healthy, active children by inspiring a love of gymnastics. To them, it’s never been about churning out a new generation of robot children gearing up for Olympic success. Their mission is to offer families a wonderful sports environment to grow and have fun.

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Liz presenting to the USA Gymnastics National Congress in August 2018

The results? By 2019, Metro Stars had two locations with approximately 36,000 square feet, serving an estimated 3,000 families. Many Metro Stars classes had waiting lists, and in October, Liz wrote a 3-year vision statement about opening a third location. I was honored to freelance for the Lillas, becoming ‘the girl in the Open Gym videos’, relaying instructions via video for dozens of kids before each session started – one of the few times my kids have almost, ALMOST, thought I was cool. Erik founded a second business, ERK Realty, to help other entrepreneurs by sharing the knowledge he had built up over more than a decade of successful work using the success of Metro Star Gymnastics to invest in additional real estate and projects. Throughout all of their seemingly limitless success, the Lillas remained generous and thoughtful, financially and otherwise supporting countless causes, fundraisers, experiences for children and more.

It was Erik who seemed to sense early on, that this crazy virus that was spreading through Asia and Europe, could impact the businesses they spent their entire adult lives building. By the time COVID-19 reached us, Liz knew they would be hit hard.

“When I saw that first case on the news, I knew everything would change,” says Liz. “We had to really make devastating decisions for our business.”

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Social distancing. Less than 10 people in an area, more than 6 feet apart. Have you ever been to a gymnastics class? Coaches need to spot kids. Kids are touching equipment, mats, and each other. You can’t DO gymnastics without touching stuff.. and other people. Liz, with a background in healthcare, knew her gyms could not stay open. And as restaurants, bars and salons began closing their doors, the Lillas had 100 employees waiting to hear if they were losing their jobs.

“For some of our employees, this is their career. They are the breadwinners for their families,” said Liz. “We knew we couldn’t just let everyone go. That wasn’t an option. We committed to paying our staff, using our savings, as long as we could. We did some math and figured we could pay them through September, maybe November.”

This, with no revenue coming in. 

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Erik and Liz have four children. They have a mortgage. I can’t even imagine how much utilities cost for 36,000 square feet of gym, in addition to facility costs, business expenses, property taxes, you name it. Yet the Lillas committed to financially supporting their full-time employees.

Mind blown. Here’s where I would have curled up in the fetal position, after I had puked, and just cried. And cried. And prayed. And then cried some more.

“I didn’t sleep that night,” said Liz. “My brain started thinking, ‘how can we serve these kids? No school, no sports, no interaction.. how can we still offer our services?’ And my second thought, ‘how can my staff be involved so we have some sort of revenue so we can pay them longer?’ I went into my office, sat down, and said how do we make this happen.”

This crisis has affected so many businesses. As the daughter of small business owners, this has really weighed heavily on my heart. BUT… while I can support restaurants through takeout orders, and I can support my favorite stores and professionals by stocking up on products and gift cards… how can you keep a gymnastics facility running? 

Liz turned to the medium countless corporations (including my own Westside Community Schools!) are utilizing right now… THE POWER OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION.

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“If I have to teach a gymnastics class in my living room, what would it look like?” asked Liz. “I involved my children to test out my ideas. I had practice classes over video with my friends’ families. Staff jumped in and had great ideas. I then wrote a letter to all of our customers, sharing our history and what we built from nothing. We wouldn’t be charging them for the classes they agreed to, but we offered parents a week of online courses for free, asking, ‘how can we help your kids?'”

Metro Stars offered an hour of normalcy. Kids got to put on their leotards, grab their water bottles, and hear from the coaches they knew and loved. ‘Monday is gymnastics night’ – well, through this innovative plan, it still was. For children and parents, thrown this historic loop of CRAZY with school at home and never leaving the house, gymnastics came to them.

“I was really nervous,” said Liz. “I had done all of this work, stayed up late, put it all on the line. This has never been done before. This was like a start-up company that launched in three days. It was a new celebration every time someone enrolled!”

As of April 11, 130 customers (and counting!) had enrolled for online courses through Metro Stars Gymnastics. A parent left a comment on Facebook, asking if they could enroll from Indonesia (yes!). Metro Stars has developed a library for parents to access anytime their kiddo needs a gym session.. or just a wiggle break.

Was there an option to lay off our staff and allow them to collect unemployment?” said Liz. “Yes, that was actually recommended to me by quite a few colleagues. But by us getting together and solving this problem as a group, we are uniting. We feel purpose. The ingenuity that has come out of this is so exciting.”

And inspiring. Local media and the national Coaching For Leaders network have featured what Metro Stars is doing, providing business owners and entreprenuers across the country with new ideas – and hope – that they can survive this pandemic. CLICK HERE to listen!

“Necessity is the Mother of Invention,” said Liz. “We didn’t even realize these things were options. We all have so many assets we just have to tap into, areas of strength we take for granted. Then, when we are hit with a situation like this, we realize how we can build upon those strengths and use them differently.”

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I am working on focusing on the opportunities presented by this pandemic, not the challenges. I get to be home with my children everyday and watch them, really watch them, 24/7. Both my job and my husband’s jobs are secure and we have the ability to work from home. I have NO EXCUSE not to workout every day, because I’m HERE. Here I am, writing on my couch without Mom guilt because I got to spend the day with my kids AND get a lot of work done, all from the comfort of my kitchen table. How lucky am I?

The Lillas have the opposite of luck in this mess. This pandemic has dealt them one hell of a blow. But instead of lying down and giving up, instead of circling their wagons and focusing solely on their own needs, they stood even taller and have demonstrated true leadership, ingenuity and talent. They are positive. They are strong. They are inspiring. Even now, Liz is reminding herself – and everyone who hears their story – that you can always find stars in the dark if you look hard enough.

“In that October vision statement, I talked about how a third location could reach kids that never had the opportunity to experience gymnastics,” Liz said. “I had no idea I would be able to open a third location in just 6 months – a virtual location!”

Stories like this make us want to run faster and jump higher. They make us dream big, and they help us hold onto those dreams when all seems lost.

Stories like this are why I love to write. Thanks, Liz.

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CLICK HERE to learn more about Metro Stars Gymnastics and online gymnastics classes, or CLICK HERE to follow Metro Stars on Facebook!

 

Me, Myself and I

Disclaimer – I am fully aware of how NERDY the following sentences will sound.

Guys, last night I did something I haven’t done in YEARS – AND IT WAS AWESOME.

After spending the last few seasons stepping up to the plate, awkwardly chucking the bat forward, and dinging a ball back to the pitcher, last night I gracefully swung, connected and propelled that beautiful neon softball over the heads of the outfielders, running to catch up.

It was glorious.

I used to be good. I used to connect. I used to be FAST. 30 pounds and 20 years later, I am slow. I second-guess myself. I don’t know what happened to my coordination. My self-esteem has plummeted along with my batting average.

WHY?!?! It’s slow-pitch, co-ed softball for crying out loud.

Because I DON’T FAIL. If I do something, I want to KICK ASS at it. I want to dominate. Last night, after two at bats and two line drive hits, I felt like I had re-discovered a long lost figment of my formerself.. and I felt like I could fly.

It was a high I really needed. I feel like I’m riding a never-ending roller coaster, battling with my weight, my age, what I want to be as a wife and mother, and all of my other self-imposed goals that seem so far out of reach. For one brief hour, I felt like: ‘I’M AWESOME’.

I think we, as women, constantly compete with ourselves and the inner voices that say ‘you SHOULD be THIS.’ It’s a battle that, at just 20-years old, a Doane University student is aware off, and tries to use to her advantage rather than detriment.

Allison Baird - Miss Star City

Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

“Maya Angelou said that, ‘success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it’,” said Allison Baird. “I am in competition with no one but myself, and if at the end of the day I like who I am and what I do in all areas, whether it be scholarship, service or style, than I have been successful.”

A mature outlook from a woman just starting to discover her adult-self and what she’s capable of. She credits a passion for telling stories, embracing each person’s background and motivation. Often, she channels that through theatre, as a Doane University student on scholarship for the arts.

“I get to play characters all the time,” said Allison. “Some who are similar to me and some who are nothing like me, but still none of them are me. This experience allows me to fully and completely be Allison. In theatre, we call it character work when we research a character that we’re going to play. This allows us to play that character with the utmost amount of truth and integrity. Now, the Miss Nebraska program is helping me to do my ‘character work’ on myself.”

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Allison was crowned Miss Star City 2018 in January, a return to a program she’d competed in for several years as a teenager from Gering, finishing 1st Runner Up twice at the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen pageant.

“I competed as a Miss, won my first local, and made Top 5 at state,” said Allison. “I was thrilled. I took a year off and decided to come back this year because I finally know my why. I became passionate about something, and knew and felt called to compete again.”

Allison found power and inspiration through children. I’ve seen it firsthand in her interactions with my own two boys; this girl instantly relates to kids through their innate creativity, curiosity and positivity.

“My platform is ‘Little But Fierce’, which not only advocates for fine arts education in schools, but also helps kiddos of all ages find their voices through fine arts curriculum,” said Allison. “I have had the opportunity to speak to our state’s representatives about funding and goals, but I have also had the pleasure of visiting surrounding schools and doing workshops with after school programs and classrooms. My goal is to encourage children to be the star of their show. To stand up for what they believe in and discover the voice within that might be little, but it is fierce. Confidence. Character. Compassion. The arts can teach kids those skills, and can translate to all areas of their education and beyond.”

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Allison is sharing that message not only through her words, but through her actions, as both a performer and a public servant, volunteering throughout her college community, her hometown, and abroad.

“You want to see change? I’ve seen girls with a crown do more for their communities in one year than many politicians do in their entire term,” said Allison. “We are dedicated, service-oriented, and committed to making the world around us a better place.”

 

 

And Allison considers many of her fellow titleholders, past and present, her closest allies and sources of inspiration.

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“My favorite moment was actually after crowning! I had decided pretty late int he game that I was going to compete for Miss Star City, so my family and friends weren’t able to come watch,” said Allison. “Seeing that I was a ‘loner’, former Miss Nebraska Alyssa Howell, her roommate Megan, and current Miss Nebraska Allison Tietjen crowded over me for a picture. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and it was a reminder of the sisterhood this organization instills. Some of the most inspiring, supportive, encouraging ladies are there to step in as your ‘family’ and share in your victories.”

Which reminds me of softball. When I ran into the dugout after my first and then second hit, I was greeted by high five after high five from my teammates who are also among my closest friends. They were genuinely thrilled, I felt, not for the fact that we got a run or two out of the deal, but that I had FINALLY remembered how to bat. How to succeed. How to smile and enjoy WHY we still play all these years later.

It’s just softball. But for a few shining moments, I felt like the BEST version of myself. When so often these days I question what I look like, what I say, how I act, what I do… it was nice to feel GREAT.

That is what this program does for so many young women – it helps them focus on the best parts of themselves, to empower others, to showcase what they love.. and to be rewarded for that with smiles, encouragement, and some really nice prizes and scholarships to boot. It’s not just a pageant.. it’s a way to provide these incredible people with countless opportunities for greatness.

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Allison Baird will tell you she wants to win this competition next month. But she’ll also tell you she sees and understands the bigger, more important contest… with herself. Winning the game isn’t about how far you hit the ball, it’s figuring out WHY it felt so damn good, and how to channel that every day off the field.

“I’m working to better myself everyday,” said Allison. “I’m always working toward growth, and if I like who I am, what I wear, and what I say on the Miss Nebraska stage, that’s a victory for me. I’m staying true to Allison this year. No need to be anyone but her.”

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To follow Miss Star City Allison Baird, click here.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALLISON?

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Standing Tall

CLICK HERE * 2015 * Just Add Glitter

CLICK HERE * 2014 * Special Feature, Nebraska’s Outstanding Teens

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The Miss Nebraska Scholarship Competition takes place June 7-9 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE to follow the Miss Nebraska Organization on Facebook

CLICK HERE to follow the Miss Nebraska Organization on Twitter

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Twin Rivers Hayden Richardson

NEXT.. Miss Sandhills Regan Kolbo

The Sisterhood Is Real

As long as I can remember, I’ve had very vivid dreams. I swear I dreamt of my husband before we met, and I fully admit that I am less than pleasant with him if I have a nightmare about him falling for another woman. I dream about flying quite a bit.. and dreams about falling, especially careening off the Missouri River bridge, FREAK ME OUT.

This week, I had a dream about my pal, Alex Bisson. So random – I haven’t seen Alex since last summer! But that’s how my whackadoodle brain works sometimes.

I dreamt I was supposed to be emceeing a big awards ceremony. Everyone was dressed up.. and I was in sweatpants and a t-shirt. Then, to make matters worse, I was petting dogs at the animal exhibit (because why wouldn’t there be an animal exhibit at a high-profile awards ceremony?) and a goat threw up all over me. WHAT TO DO? I suddenly remembered that across the high school (because that’s suddenly where the event was held) there might have been a spare set of clothes in the KETV wardrobe closet (which also happened to be at said high school). I sprinted there as fast as I could, made it to the closet, and nearly burst into tears when I realized there was NOTHING that would work. I opened the door…. and there stood Alex, saying “I can help!” She magically found me one of her anchoring outfits, helped me change, and I rushed back to the event where I joined Rob and elegantly shared with the audience how I was late because a goat threw up on me. Everyone had a nice laugh and we moved on – the event was a success and no one remembered me being late or looking like a dirty hamper.

WHAT. IN. ALL. THE. HECK.

Plankton in Brain

I seriously wonder sometimes what is going on in my hairspray infused skull. The next morning though, the overwhelming feeling I woke up with was peace and gratitude for Alex, that she was there for me to help.

Alex and I became friends when she began working at KETV as a reporter, then the First News Anchor. I was asked a question frequently in my time at KETV: do you get along with the other women? I think there was an assumption that we were competitors; we were all vying for air time, the same prime time spots, and therefore, we must have all had secret contempt for each other. SO FAR FROM THE TRUTH.

girls

This photo was taken in October at Adrian Whitsett’s wedding in Florida. My caption with this on Facebook and Twitter: my heart is happy. The women shown here all worked for KETV at some point (two still do!) We were not competitors; we were teammates. We turned to each other for advice and support. We cheered each other on when we found success. We shared clothes, makeup, hairspray (A LOT of hairspray), and insight. In a way, we were very much sisters, connections that we confirmed were still strong during this wonderful trip. Because we were all facing similar challenges and comparable journeys, we understood one another in ways others could not.

I see the same love and support in another sisterhood: the Miss Nebraska Organization.

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Yes, each of these women wants, or has worked for, the same thing: the title of Miss Nebraska. But the environment surrounding them is not Miss Congeniality brawling, gossip-mongering, or vindictive game-playing. They form friendships that span years. They learn how to support like-minded women, an attribute that will serve them throughout their lives. And when they feel alone, juggling service, school, family and work… they reach out to the sisters who can empathize because they are doing it, too.

#TheSisterhoodIsReal

That phrase has become a universal message in recent weeks, one of the toughest times the Miss America Organization has faced in decades. Our program has been in national headlines, not for the goodwill we inspire, the opportunities we offer or the relationships we nurture, but for an email scandal and ensuing criticism of our organization as a whole.

Every time I see a tweet or post from someone questioning why we have beauty pageants in 2018, or why we parade around young women in swimsuits like a meat market… I fight the urge to reply. I want to write about the scholarships we offer thousands of young women every year. I want to write about the networking opportunities this program provides, the lessons in confidence, public speaking and presence, personal composure and more. I want to share my own experiences that only happened because I was once a Miss Nebraska local titleholder. I want to tell those critics about our success stories: the doctors, award-winning journalists, philanthropists, business owners, teachers, and more who all gained incomparable life skills and attributes because of this program.

What is wrong with BEAUTY? What is wrong with a woman feeling beautiful, and promoting beauty on the INSIDE as well as out?

I get the swimsuit argument; truly, I do. But I ask critics to look beyond their initial assessment: we live in a world of obesity, indulgence, heart disease, inactivity, high cholesterol… and let’s be frank, when you know you are going to be on stage in a swimsuit, you WORK HARD. You hit the gym, you eat clean, you BECOME HEALTHIER. We are hopefully building the foundation of health in these women that will last years beyond their time competing for a crown. More so, our program is evolving; we see women of varying shapes and sizes from the local to national level. Health is not defined as ‘skinny’; we see muscle, positive lifestyles, CONFIDENCE. In my years attending the Miss Nebraska Pageant, I have left not feeling ashamed for the women who walk that stage, but wanting to BE BETTER myself, and wanting to work to be the healthiest and most confident I can be.

I don’t post any of this when I see those negative remarks…. because HATERS GONNA HATE. There will ALWAYS be negative assumptions and unfounded opinions about our program. They don’t want to listen, and I would argue, many haven’t taken the time to learn more about what Miss Nebraska and the Miss America Organization stand for TODAY.

SERVICE. SUCCESS. SCHOLARSHIP. STYLE.

To those who WILL listen, we will show the world the value of this program through our titleholders’ stories. If you’re reading this, I encourage you to join me over the next few months as I introduce you to the women competing for the titles of Miss Nebraska and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen. They are scholars, public servants, artists. They are ART, they are inspiring, they are ambassadors of goodwill. They are proof of what our organization truly stands for; not objectifying women, but empowering them.

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I’ve written before about all of the positives I gained from being a local titleholder in this program. Cash scholarships. Speaking skills and confidence. Lessons in networking and learning from criticism. Learning how to take care of myself. Getting to sing in front of thousands of people. Traveling across the country. And learning the importance of supporting other women; in pageants, career and life, we are only competing with ourselves, not each other.

Haters, go ahead and hate. #TheSisterhoodIsReal. Miss America is relevant and empowering. This organization, much like my time at KETV, helped instill in me that we as women are better when we support each other and surround ourselves with others who are pushing to be the best versions of themselves.

Alex, my fellow anchor at KETV, is also a Miss America alum. She’s an NCAA record-holder in swimming, a goosebumps-inspiring singer, one hell of a softball player, a majestic woman and a beautiful human being.

We believe in this sisterhood… and in helping a sister out when goats attack. Alex, thanks for the outfit.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-9 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE to follow the Miss Nebraska Organization on Twitter, CLICK HERE to follow on Facebook, CLICK HERE to follow on Instagram.

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COMING UP.. Tristen Wecker, Miss Fur Trade Days 2018

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014 through 2017 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

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Memorial Day

Early 2003. I was a student at UNL, and planned to meet my good friend Adrian for lunch. Many of you know him as KETV’s award winning anchor & reporter Adrian Whitsett; I’ve called him ‘friend’ since our high school days at Papillion-La Vista.

1998

Then, Adrian was enlisted in the Marines and had spent time across the US and in Japan. I don’t remember where we were or what we were doing that day back in Papillion, but I remember at one point, him telling me that he would probably be leaving soon. He couldn’t tell me where he was going or when, but just wanted to let me know.

March 20, I was lying on the couch in my parents basement swollen like a chipmunk after having my wisdom teeth removed, when network news broke in; the United States was invading Iraq. I pointed to the TV and said ‘hey!!’ and realized that was what Adrian was talking about.. he was there.

While I attended candlelight vigils for our troops and wrote Adrian letters from the comfort of my Omaha apartment, my friend was on the front lines of a war-torn, unstable country thousands of miles away. He eventually lost hearing in one of his ears from firing high-power weapons; he cleaned himself in the 120-degree+ Iraqi heat with Wet Wipes; he saw and experienced terrible things most of us will never even think of. Adrian came home that August. Thousands of brave Americans did not.

Army Pvt. Kenny Nalley of Hamburg, Iowa. He was 19 and wanted to be police officer.

Marine Lance Cpl Shane E. Kielion of Omaha. He died the same day his son, Shane Jr., was born.

Army National Guardsman Spc. Joshua Ford of Pender, just 20. The same explosion that killed him claimed the leg of one of his fellow soldiers, a man who bravely stood to salute his fallen brother at their return ceremony.

A Nebraska woman has spent countless hours volunteering and uniting people across the state, ensuring we remember these brave men and women on Memorial Day and ever other day.

Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen

“My grandfather was a Marine during the Korean War, and was very proud of the years he served his country,” Allison told me recently. “When he passed away, I knew I wanted to do something to honor him and everything he stood for. That is when I first got involved with the Nebraska Honor Flights.”

Vietnam Honor Flight (2016)

The Honor Flights are massive cooperative efforts to fly veterans to Washington DC, at no charge to them, to see the monuments and tributes built for them and the friends they have lost in war or since conflict. They are organized by Patriotic Productions; founders Bill and Evonne Williams are literally angels on earth, devoting their lives to this cause and to their traveling Remembering Our Fallen exhibit, a tribute to every single man and woman who has died serving our country since 9/11.

In 2014, Allison spearheaded efforts in her tiny hometown of Chester, Nebraska to raise $500, the cost to send one Korean veteran to DC on an Honor Flight. They raised $4,000.. and Patriotic Productions asked Allison to join them as a guardian, a trip she also talked about when I interviewed her in 2015.

Korean Honor Flight (2014)

“It was an amazing and humbling experience that truly set me on a lifelong path to honor and respect these men and women,” said Allison. “Since this first Honor Flight, I [have helped] with the Gold Star Kids Honor Flight. This was a weekend dedicated to families who have lost a loved one in combat. To hear these little kids talk about their heroes with such optimism, hope and love was something very special.”

This mission, which she dubs ‘United We Stand: Honoring Our Military’, was Allison’s personal platform of service when she held two local Miss Nebraska titles in 2014 and 2015. She didn’t compete in 2016, but never stopped focusing on this important cause.

“The year I took off I was able to raise over $14,000 for the Vietnam Honor Flight and serve as a guardian for the second time,” said Allison. “I made over 300 ‘Bracelets for the Brave’, used as a fundraiser for a Kindergarten class to raise money for our veterans.”

So why compete again for Miss Nebraska, when she was accomplishing so very much as Miss Allison Tietjen?

Miss Heartland

“This fall, I was looking through Facebook and noticed a message that was never opened,” said Allison. “It was sent May 2015. The message was from a mother who just sent her son off to the Marines. She had received one of my ‘Bracelets for the Brave’ and told me how much that meant to her. She thanked me for thinking of her and wished me well as I competed for Miss Nebraska. At that moment I realized that all of this isn’t about me. It is about those mothers who know that Miss Heartland cares about them and their sons/daughters who are going off to serve our country. It is about the veterans who smile when Miss Heartland shakes their hand and tells them they are appreciated by myself and students across Nebraska. What clicked for me is I finally understood what the ‘power of the crown’ really means, and it’s why I competed for Miss Heartland and I’m working towards Miss Nebraska.”

Allison, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, has reached out to schools across the state to spread her message of patriotism and appreciation.

“I have students write Thank You notes to our active military and veterans,” said Allison. “I sent them to a non-profit called A Million Thanks that will send them to US service members all over the world. I have collected 300 so far and my goal is 700 by June, and 20,000 as Miss Nebraska.”

Remember that last goal Allison set and crushed? She is on pace to raise 60-times that initial $500 she had hoped for.

“I sent an email out to as many elementary, middle and high school principals as I could, detailing what an Honor Flight is and how they can get involved,” said Allison. “I described what my school and community did, and with just emailing, I was able to help start eight school fundraisers that raised a total of over $14,000. This year, I sent out another mass email and have around six schools that I know of raising money. In total, schools across Nebraska have raised $30,000 for Honor Flights in the last two years!”

Allison credits the Miss Nebraska Organization for showing her another way to serve her country, as well as helping her find a purpose and passion. She also volunteers through her sorority, Alpha Phi, Girl Scouts, and her church, University Lutheran Chapel, where she plays piano.

Ihop

“I always tell students I’m speaking to, ‘find what you love, discover your talents and strengths, and ind how you can use those strengths and passions to serve others.’ Being Miss Nebraska is not alway a glamorous job. I want people to know that behind the makeup and beautiful gowns are just a bunch of strong-willed, determined women who are working to make this world a better place.”

Africa

For this woman, that won’t stop if she doesn’t win the Miss Nebraska crown. She’s proven that twice now. When the lights turned off and the crowds went home, Allison proved her power. She studied abroad in Africa. She went skydiving. She took care of her body and mind (“piano is my therapy”). She was motivated to make every day better than the last for herself and everyone around her.

Every time a man or woman signs that paper, puts on that uniform, and leaves all of our comforts to PROTECT everything we know, they are ensuring we have another beautiful day. Another opportunity to wake up in America and do anything we set our mind to.

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Adrian, an American hero, was home to sing at my wedding eight years ago. I cannot wait to watch him marry his best friend and love, Emily, this October.

We take so much for granted. We take every day for granted, we take our freedom for granted. We never say thank you enough to the men and women, and their families, who sacrifice so much to make that possible.. so we can say what we please, do as we please, and work to become whatever we want to be..

..even Miss Nebraska. And if she wins, Allison hopes to say thank you to as many service members and their families as she can.

“I am the small town farmer’s daughter, but I am able to walk into a room full of strangers, clearly speak, share my story and take control of the room,” said Allison. “I understand what it means to give back and serve others without hesitation. I know how to put your heart and soul into something and be a part of something so much bigger than yourself. I truly believe that we live in one of the greatest countries on earth and that is because of the men and women who have served for us.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about Patriotic Productions, the Remembering Our Fallen exhibit and the Nebraska Honor Flights.

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Click here to follow Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen on Facebook!

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALLISON?

CLICK HERE * 2015 * All-American Girl

CLICK HERE * 2014* Where The Heart Is

For more information about the Miss Nebraska State Fair/Miss Heartland Pageant or to become a contestant, email Directors Chelsey Jungck at cjungck@statefair.org or Shelley Penner at sa_penner@hotmail.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson

NEXT.. Miss Scotts Bluff County 2017 Nikki-Catrina Anderson

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!

Finding Our Purpose

Westside Superintendent Dr. Blane McCann delivered a BRILLIANT speech at our District’s commencement ceremony last weekend. His theme: purpose. In front of thousands of graduates, parents, family members and educators, he said in part..

Purpose is the little flame that keeps you going. Your challenge after today is to find that flame: your purpose. It is something that your parents can’t find for you; you have to look for it. It’s not always easy to find. Every, single one of you has a unique purpose to fulfill.

Every single one of us is here for a reason.

Think about that.

My friend Lisa recently told me something that I have thought about off and on ever since. Her husband is Brian Duensing, a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

Brian and Lisa

Brian was one of the best pitchers the University of Nebraska – Lincoln has ever produced. He’s an Olympian, representing the United States on the 2008 US Baseball team in Beijing. He was a starter for the Minnesota Twins for years, and now plays for the World Champions in Chicago. He and Lisa could do anything, enjoying his success and living a life few only dream of. Instead, these happily married parents of three devote every, waking hour to their passions: family and doing everything in their power to ensure happiness for other families.

As Brian’s fame grew, he and Lisa started receiving T-shirts in the mail, asking him to share support for pediatric cancer patients across his popular social media accounts. The Duensings embraced the challenge; every day of every September, Brian sports a new shirt and shares information about that child and their cause. He and Lisa started the Brian Duensing Foundation, a non-profit organization taking these fundraising efforts to an even higher level. Every game, as players wives sit in the stands, Lisa sits in the family lounge and works for hours on Foundation plans and ideas, like their now annual fundraiser bringing baseball’s biggest names to Omaha to raise money for pediatric cancer-related causes.

baseball

The Brian Duensing Foundation Event in 2015 at Ralston Arena. I was honored to emcee the fundraiser and VIP Q&A session with World Series Champion Alex Gordon, Duensing, future Hall of Famer Joe Mauer and the MLB’s first ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte.

The Duensings have raised HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS for Nebraska based causes that help families battling cancer. That text I mentioned that Lisa sent me?

“These are the reasons God made Brian a baseball player. I know it.”

This year, Brian and Lisa Duensing will focus their purpose on a little boy named Sammy.

Sammy

At four years old, Sammy Nahorny was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, a solid tumor that begins on immature nerve cells, and is very difficult to treat. Many cases of Neuroblastoma begin in the abdomen, and commonly affect the adrenal glands. Within days of his diagnosis, Sammy had surgery; doctors told his parents his cancer was Stage 4 and high risk. His mom, Erin and dad, Chris, immediately started researching options.. and found few. Their quest for hope was far-reaching and relentless, not just for Sammy, but for every other child facing this terrible disease. Their community in Columbus rallied, drawing the support of not only the Duensings, but of Miss Nebraska USA 2014 Amanda Soltero, Olympic Gold Medalist Curt Tomasevicz, music superstar Jason Derulo and more. They all united to become Sammy’s Superheroes… and have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and counting for research, assistance and more. Just as importantly, they have become a voice, loud and clear, for all children and families regarding legislation, funding and awareness.

This superhero squad has grown yet again in recent months.

Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson

“This is a great organization that started in my hometown!” Alayna told me recently. “Sammy’s Superheroes raises awareness to pediatric cancer and has helped many families who are affected by this. I’ve had many family members fight this hard battle and I’m happy that I am able to help this cause.”

Alayna Wilson is a recent graduate of Scotus Central Catholic, a cheerleader for both her school and her entire hometown of Columbus, Nebraska. A girl with a constant smile and self-described ‘bubbly and happy’ personality, she was looking for a way to make a bigger difference advocating for causes like Sammy’s Superheroes.

awi miss gering

She found it when crowned Miss Gering 2017 in February.

“I love the stage and helping others,” Alayna said. “I wanted to spread my platform and this was the best way possible. I perfected my paperwork, platform and talent and drove to North Platte for one of the best weekends of my life.”

And a BUSY one at that, much like every other weekend in Alayna’s jam-packed senior year. She’s a competitive dancer, and a member of the All-American team by the National Cheer Association. The same day she met her fellow titleholders at Miss Nebraska Orientation, she immediately left to head back to Columbus for a major competition.

Still, to Alayna, this new title meant responsibility; to serve others. She’s volunteered for fundraisers in Columbus, Lincoln and Omaha, even using her Senior Skip Day to travel to Children’s Hospital and Medical Center to deliver care packages for the Miss Nebraska Serves project.

“My favorite part of this organization is the volunteer work!” said Alayna. “I love how each contestant has multiple hours of volunteer work under their belt. It’s so humbling to be among the amazing Miss Nebraska Class of 2017! There’s nothing that makes me happier than helping others.”

awi little sister

And meeting others is part of what has made this journey so memorable for Alayna.

“It is an honor to be part of this organization. I love every minute of it,” said Alayna. “I have 15 new sisters, a sister queen and a little sister. This is a family. We are a family that supports and encourages each other. This gives me motivation when I need that extra push.”

I’m guessing the Nahorny’s would say the same thing about their network of superheroes. The strangers and neighbors, the celebrities and friends, the Duensings and Alayna Wilson… they are all part of a supportive and encouraging squad of strength who love Sammy like family.

AWI with Sammy

Sammy IS a superhero. This fall, just months after passing the 5th anniversary of his diagnosis, he’ll join us own personal Justice League to fight the evil that threatens so many innocent children just like him. We will find a way to beat cancer, allowing Sammy to find his purpose, just like his Superheroes Brian and Lisa Duensing have.

Alayna Wilson hopes to follow in their footsteps.

awi europe

“Each day is a new day for laughter and spreading happiness,” said Alayna. “I obviously hope to be Miss Nebraska whether that time is this year, or the next, or the next. I know that that is somewhere along my path. Overall, I hope to do my best and meet and influence people along the journey. My mission is to spread the name of Sammy’s Superheroes and spread love, happiness and encouragement as well.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about Sammy’s Superheroes

CLICK HERE to learn more about the Brian Duensing Foundation

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Click here to follow Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson on Facebook!

Alayna was crowned at Crowns & Gowns 2017, Nebraska’s largest annual prom/pageant showcase.  CLICK HERE for more details about the 2018 pageant and event! You can also email Director of the Miss Gering/Miss Western Nebraska Pageant, Heather Hayes, by emailing Heather.Hayes@charter.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more detailsHERE to follow on TwitterHERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Douglas County 2017 Kogan Murphy

NEXT.. Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen

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!

Cheer Rules

I’ve never been a cheerleader.  The closest I ever came was borrowing my friend Elisa’s cheerleading uniform in high school to do a drama skit during a pep rally at PLHS.  I am, however, a former pageant girl.  And I daresay we have all faced the same stereotypes.

We care more about makeup than we do about talent.

We are all Valley girls.. as in the Valley of Dumb.

We are just for show.. we objectify ourselves by taking part.. we should do more and be more.

To all of this, I laugh.  HARD.  I know how hard I worked for two straight years as I competed for Miss Nebraska and served my local community as a titleholder.  I’ve also seen my friends, my cousin, and now the same young women I work with at Westside and with pageants spend countless hours in the gym perfecting routines and skills.  I’m excited to meet yet another one this weekend in Omaha.

Miss Western Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Whitney Miller

Whitney Miller will compete for the title of Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen this weekend, representing the North Platte Bulldog Varsity Cheer Squad.  She is one of SEVERAL NPHS students competing for a title this year; two of them are cheerleaders.

Whitney Cheer

Yes, they smile.  Yes, they are beautiful.  But as a squad, these girls are also making an impact in their community.

Last May, Whitney was part of the group that surprised little Jack at his 4th birthday party.  This was right in the middle of Districts and State for Spring sports, finals prep, and graduation parties, yet Whitney and her fellow cheerleaders made an effort to make this little guy’s birthday party a little more memorable.

Whitney cheer cancer

In October, the Varsity Cheer squad sold memory cards like this, displaying names of survivors and those lost to cancer.  They raised awareness through events like their ‘Purple Out’ game and donated all proceeds of their efforts to the Callahan Cancer Center.

Just last month, Whitney and her fellow cheerleaders went to Buffalo Elementary school for a last minute pep rally, to pump up students taking NeSA tests!  The response: simply amazing.  CLICK HERE to see for yourself!

Whitney Dance Factory

Just making the Varsity squad is not an easy task; Whitney is a talented, competitive dancer at the North Platte Dance Factory, owned and led by Miss Nebraska 1999 Becky Smith.  She spends hours at the studio every week, in addition to her studies at North Platte High.

Whitney Academic letter

Dedication to education that earned Whitney an Academic Letter this Spring.

Whitney Cheer quote 2

So did we cover it, haters?  Talent. Brains.  An activity that requires the young women who take part to work hard and dedicate themselves to goals and to their community.  Imagine what the world would be like if we all let our inner cheerleaders take hold once in a while?

Pageant girls do.  And this weekend, Miss Western Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Whitney Miller is ready to prove it.

Whitney final

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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 York County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Alexandria Warneke

NEXT.. Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Hannah Miller

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!

 

College Ready

I have been so honored, as of February 3, to be Co-Marketing Director of the Miss Nebraska Organization.  From the get-go, our Board has had several clear goals for this year: to set a new record in scholarships for our contestants, to provide new opportunities for Miss Nebraska and all of our titleholders, and to host one heck of a pageant in just a few short weeks!  That said, we could barely hold back our excitement at Orientation as Executive Director Rachel Daly told all contestants, their directors and their families that this year, we were proud to offer an estimated $1.3 million dollars in cash and college scholarships.

$1.3 MILLION DOLLARS

Yeah, that is worth the jumbo font.  One of our key contributors, Midland University, is offering every single contestant, regardless of how they finish, $15,000 annually.  That’s a guaranteed $60,000 for every, single Miss Nebraska contestant if they are accepted into Midland University.  One young woman’s mother approached us to confirm this was all true, and when we said yes, she said she almost cried.  Her daughter, Courtney, is going to Midland next year.

Miss Fur Trade Days 2017 Courtney Pelland

“I want people to know the Miss America Organization is not based on how beautiful we are,” Courtney told me recently.  “Overall, this organization provides scholarships for the girls who compete to help with college debt.  That is a huge deal.”

Courtney, a senior at North Platte High School, has witnessed the positive attributes of the Miss Nebraska Program for most of her life.  As she told me last year (click here to read more!) she and her family have been involved with nearly every facet of the program including Host Family, Little Sister, Teen titleholder, and now a Miss titleholder.  Courtney has also been mentored by several Miss Nebraska’s, including Miss Nebraska 2009 Brittany Jeffers and Miss Nebraska 1999 Becky Smith.

“When I was 14, I wanted to start competing, but the only issue [I faced] was my shyness,” said Courtney.  “Halfway through my freshman year of high school, my Nana (my dad’s mother) passed away, five days before my birthday.  My Nana always loved pageantry and wanted me to one day compete for the title of Miss Nebraska.”

Now she will.  Courtney was crowned Miss Fur Trade Days last fall, in her first year eligible to compete for Miss Nebraska (click here to read an article about her win in the North Platte Telegraph!).  Volunteering has been a key element for Courtney in both her Teen and Miss roles, because she knows personally the impact one person can have.  In January of 2015, Courtney was admitted to the hospital, in dire need of blood.

“I was diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia; I was given two units of blood that day,” said Courtney.  “Eventually I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, but I also realized how important it is to donate blood.”

And Courtney has been taking that message across her hometown and beyond.  She’s spoken to students and groups, she’s organized blood drives in North Platte, she’s partnered with the American Red Cross to strengthen her impact, and she shares powerful statistics and stories on social media, hoping to compel others to donate.  Click here to read the North Platte Telegraph’s story about Courtney!

“My favorite part of the organization doesn’t have anything to do with the actual competition,” said Courtney.  “My favorite part is being able to give back to my community in a different way.  A crown and sash don’t define someone, it’s about all of us girls making an impact on someone.  I have a friend who says the reason he donates blood is because of what I had to go through.  I am involved with this program because I want to make a difference in this world and help others out.”

 Courtney makes appearances and volunteers at events in addition to an incredibly active personal schedule.  She works, takes part in musical, is a member of the Pacers Dance Team, trains with the Dance Factory in North Platte.. and she’s preparing for high school graduation next month!  Courtney was named her high school’s Bulldog of the Month in December, click here to read more!

“I am a very busy girl and always on the go,” said Courtney.  “Being this busy I have to be very organized with the things I have decided on.  Once I put my mind to something, nothing can stop me. If I want it I will do everything in my power to achieve that goal or get to where I want to be.”

Courtney credits the Miss Nebraska and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Organizations for helping her meet those challenges, and find support along the way.

“This organization has pushed me out of my comfort zone and into this bubbly, caring girl,” said Courtney.  “I have learned that it is okay to state your opinion, ask questions and show the world who you truly are.  I am now able to go up to random people and hold a conversation without even thinking about it.”

“On top of me finding my true self, I have formed some incredible friendships across the state,” said Courtney.  “Miss Chadron Shaniah Freeseman and I are sister queens this year, and I have been blessed to have a girl like her by my side.  She has become a sister to me.  This type of friendship is the one I hope every girl is able to form.”

Making long-lasting friendships is one of Courtney’s ultimate goals for her experience this year leading up to and at the Miss Nebraska Pageant.  She wants to network, make her hometown proud, and use the life lessons she’s learned on this journey as she attends Midland University to major in Fine Arts Management this fall.  She’ll also have a little help every step of the way… some extra cash in her pocket thanks to the Miss Nebraska Organization, and some extra love in hand as she competes for her state title.

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“Every time I compete in a pageant, I have a buckeye to remind me of Nana, and I always carry it around before my interview,” said Courtney.  “Knowing that she is by my side drives me to compete and to make a difference in this world.”

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Click here to follow Miss Fur Trade Days 2017 Courtney Pelland on Facebook!

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT COURTNEY?

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Everyday America

For more information about the Miss Chadron/Miss Northwest/Miss Fur Trade Days Pageant or for information about becoming a contestant, CLICK HERE to follow the organization on Facebook.  You can also email Director Sara Smith at misscnwdirectors@gmail.com or by calling (308) 430-2613.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more detailsHERE to follow on TwitterHERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Chadron’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Brianna Little

NEXT.. Miss York County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Alexandria Warneke

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!

It Takes a Village

For the first time in 16 years, Westside High School won a gold medal at the NSAA State Wrestling Championships this year.  In fact, TWO Warriors made it to the top of the podium.

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Josh Jansa and Darlondo Hill worked tirelessly all season and for years prior to earn this achievement.  So did a handful of men working nonstop behind the scenes.. their coaches. These student athletes are Head Coach Mike Jernigan’s FIRST state champions.

“Getting your first state champion makes a coach feel that ‘I finally did it.  I do know what I am doing!’” Jernigan told me. “Getting two in the same tournament is even better! I finally felt like I belonged to the coaching fraternity. To finally have a state champion to call our own is a great feeling. I know my assistant coaches haven’t stopped talking about it yet.”

Behind every star is a support network.  Oscar winners thank their agents, Olympic athletes thank their coaches, EVERYONE thanks the family members who cheered them on every step of the way.  The Miss Nebraska Organization is no different; behind every charismatic, stunning, role model.. there is a village.  Executive Director Rachel Daly spends countless hours preparing our titleholders to be the best they can be for Miss America and for their entire year of service.  President Janet Heinzle has volunteered for DECADES to constantly strengthen the program’s support network in North Platte, Nebraska and beyond.  Scholarship Director Megan Doughty spends time every day securing new financial opportunities with countless business partners and universities.  And Board Member Carol Halley has dedicated the last 25+ years to a group known as the Miss Nebraska Little Sisters.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

The Little Sister’s program was started as a good will gesture between girls in the community and Miss Nebraska contestants. They meet at orientation and spend much of Miss Nebraska week together, including time on stage during the pageant itself. These friendships often last for many years and create a lasting bond between the big sister and little sister; it’s a direct connection between outstanding role models and little girls who absolutely adore their ‘big sisters’. Carol organizes ALL of this, and the impact is during that week of competition and for years after is simply immeasurable.

Here’s proof:

Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Kiera Rhodes

“When I was 10, I was a Little Sister in the Miss Nebraska Pageant,” Kiera told me recently.  “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  My Big Sister was Mindy Schreiber; she was awesome.  Her talent was singing and I just looked up to her the whole time.  She got first runner up that year and I was so proud of her.  What I pulled away from that experience was the effect the girls had on my life.  I decided that I wanted to change people’s lives the way those girls did when I was younger.”

Mindy Schreiber, like so many of our contestants, is the textbook definition of ROLE MODEL.  She completed college in 3 years while working in her intended career field.  She held five local titles; a tireless advocate for her community, volunteering for the Teammates program.  She is kind, beautiful, healthy and hardworking.  And ‘little’ Kiera has emulated each and everyone of the traits she witnessed in her ‘big sister’.

“I am self motivated because I haven’t always needed someone to be telling me why and how I should do something, I just do it and I push myself to work hard for what I want,” said Kiera.  “I would like to say that I’m outgoing, I love talking and getting to know people.  I am very dedicated to the activities I am involved in; when I join something I always want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to help out.”

And boy, is this girl doing that as Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen.

Kiera is literally EVERYWHERE.  She’s signed autographs at carnivals, walked in charity fashion shows and volunteered at numerous local events.  Check out this article including Kiera in the North Platte Telegraph!  This busy sophomore, a student at North Platte High School, was selected for UNK Honor Choir this year, she’s performed the national anthem several times and she’s involved in musical productions in her hometown.  Singing is one of her favorite parts of being a titleholder and competing.

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Click here to hear Kiera’s recent national anthem performance at the District Basketball game in North Platte!

“I’ve always loved singing ever since I was little,” said Kiera.  “When I’m on stage singing, it’s like no one is watching and I’m just expressing my feelings.  It truly is an indescribable feeling.”

Kiera’s personal platform of service is ‘Bust A Smile – Break Down a Barrier’, encouraging others to break out of comfort zones to try something new or make a new friend.

“I really think a big problem we face today is not only the generational gaps but even the gaps within our own generations,” said Kiera. “More people need to realize that we all have a lot more in common than we think. Not only that but we can all teach each other valuable things if we would all just talk to one another more often.”

Fewer cliques, more connections.

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A mission that’s only been fueled by Kiera’s participation in the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program.

“Obviously we all want to win, but only one of us can win,” said Kiera. “The girls I’ve met and competed against are girls that are very true and they are super nice and I know I’m going to have long lasting friendships with [them].”

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Kiera with Miss Twin Rivers 2017 Emma Wilkinson; both were Miss Nebraska Little Sisters

Tremendous maturity and perspective from a teenager, likely credited to her parents, her sisters both by blood and by title, and the volunteers who worked behind the scenes to pave her way to success.  Thanks to the village, women like Carol Halley, little girls across Nebraska grow up with a little extra sparkle.. then as young women share that with countless generations who follow their paths.  Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen Kiera Rhodes hopes to continue that legacy.

‘Little Girls with Dreams become Women with vision!’ – Carol Halley

“My biggest goal is just that I’ve impacted at least one person’s life in a good way,” said Kiera.  “Those girls taught me to be more confident in my opinions and that it’s ok to express your opinion.  Never be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.”

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen Kiera Rhodes.

For more information about the Miss Harvest Moon Festival/Miss Alliance/Miss Panhandle’s Outstanding Teen Pageant and to become a contestant, email Director Melinda Cullan at maot.alliance@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

For more information about the Miss Nebraska Little Sister Program CLICK HERE.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Old West Balloon Fest 2017 Tristen Wecker

NEXT.. Miss Eastern Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Naomi Turner

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!

Stethoscopes & Tiaras

This week, I celebrated my 36th birthday the best way possible… with Influenza A.  I’ve written about this before, this has NOT been my season of health.  In baseball terms, I’m trying to hit for the cycle of ailments, I suppose.

Sunday, I texted my friend Natalie for her over-the-phone diagnosis.. poor girl is my only physician BFF, and therefore, I bother her on the weekend when I can’t reach a doctor.  Thanks to her help and advice, I (hopefully) turned onto the road to recovery sooner than waiting a few extra days.

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Photo courtesy CHI Health

My friend Natalie may look familiar.. because she’s Dr. Natalie Stuntz, a highly respected and admired pediatrician on all of the CHI Health commercials in eastern Nebraska. She’s also a former Miss Omaha contestant and 2-time 1st runner up to Miss Nebraska USA.  She’s a busy mother of two, wife, and yet she still she donates her time across Omaha and to communities around the world.  She’s beautiful, brilliant, and kind.

Maybe it’s a doctor thing.. the same dedication, intelligence and drive required to get through medical school and residency is also exemplified in other facets of life.  An Elkhorn teenager hoping to pursue medicine herself is already following in Dr. Stuntz’s footsteps in more ways than one.

Miss Elkhorn’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Emily Lenser

“I plan on attending UNL as a pre-med student, dancing on the Scarlet Dance Team and moving on to medical school,” Emily told me recently.  “My dream is to be a pediatric surgeon.”

Big goals for a young woman who can’t yet drive a car.  Emily credits her focus to her participation in pageants, including her preparation for this year’s Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant in Omaha.

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“I love competing in pageants and have been doing so since first grade,” said Emily.  “Sometimes even my friends had a negative view of pageants.  I have really talked to them about pageants and all that is involved with pageantry.  I focused on telling them about interview skills which will help me in my future, speaking in front of an audience, confidence and grace on stage, and the wonderful opportunities to serve my community.”

Emily has been a titleholder within the National American Miss system and continues to mentor younger participants.  She’s a student at Elkhorn South High School, where she’s active with the Storm Dance Team.  Emily also finds time to do what she loves most, to joke around and to’shop, shop, shop!’

 “As a busy teen, it’s very important to stay organized with my schoolwork, activities, dance team and competitive dance,” said Emily.  “[Being organized] is the only way I can do so much!”

Those are the kinds of things Emily is excited to share with not only a panel of judges, but to any group who will listen as she advocates for pageant girls everywhere.

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“My platform is ‘Don’t Judge The Sparkle: Changing Pageant Perception’,” said Emily.  “There are so many people who do not understand the world of pageantry.  I am making this my mission and want to change the negative stereotypes that some people have of pageants.  The general public does not understand all of the wonderful opportunities that take place through pageants.  College scholarships, interview skills, public speaking skills, poise, grace, resume skills just to name a few.”

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I’ve done the name dropping, giving you proof of the incredible women who’ve been part of the Miss Nebraska Organization.  Brook Matthews-Hudson, co-founder and producer of Omaha Fashion Week.  Brittany Jeffers, Emmy Award winning broadcast news journalist.  Dr. Natalie Stuntz, role model for young women dreaming of being a doctor.. and Miss America.

“My goal/dream is to become as involved as I can in the state pageant,” said Emily.  “Of course I want to win and along the way I hope to make new friends, promote the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Organization, serve my community and continue to do well academically.  [There are] so many wonderful opportunities available to serve others.  It really makes a person feel good.  I hope to continue promoting serving others.”

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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 Sarpy County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Phoenix Stanford

NEXT.. Miss Old West Balloon Fest 2017 Tristen Wecker

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!