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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.

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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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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!

 

Be Kind

This has been one of those years that make you question everything.

Parkland. Santa Fe. Kentucky.

As our country mourned, debated and prayed over school shootings and tragedies repeatedly happening across America, students and in some cases, teachers, walked out of class to protest the violence, demanding change.

Did it make a difference? I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m alone in believing there were many kids who walked out that didn’t fully understand what or why they were protesting.. but simply wanted to get out of class.

At Westside Community Schools, building leaders and staff members tried something different.. they encouraged students to take action with clear and well-thought out plans to enact change, not only outside our schools, but INSIDE them. Westside High students staged a sit-in; they lined the hallways with posters, signs and silence not only paying tribute to the victims lost, but spreading awareness to each other  about violence and to anyone who saw photos and videos of their event. Westside Middle School took this a step further, planning an entire week of activities promoting Safer Schools.

Organized by Student Council members, students created and sold T-shirts uniting their student body and benefitting their school. They made posters reminding each other to report problems and concerns, and they gathered together for an emotional assembly with a resounding message: KINDNESS MATTERS.

That was the theme of their week – to simply be kind to one another. Love always wins. That spirit of brotherhood and respect was palpable during the final assembly wrapping up their Safer Schools week.

It’s the same mentality that has compelled a young woman from western Nebraska to accumulate more than 1,000 hours of time serving others here, and around the world.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

“We need to accept people for who they are and embrace their uniqueness,” said Brianna Little, crowned Miss Scotts Bluff County last summer. “My platform is Be Kind, Be The Change, bringing acts of inclusion, acceptance and kindness into our daily lives.”

Brianna is no stranger to service, an active member of her community for the last several years as a teen titleholder in the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program. However, she credits a trip to Nicaragua last summer as a key turning point in her mission as both a Miss Nebraska contestant, and a human being.

“I not only was made aware of the need in the world, but I saw just how grateful someone could be for the things we take for granted,” said Brianna. “When a young child, not even school age, runs up to you, dirty bowl in hand begging for beans with big, hopeful eyes, or when a mother will take any clothing you have to offer for her child, your view of the world will change the way mine did.”

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Brianna continued that mission when she returned home to Harrisburg, Nebraska, working to deliver meals to those in need throughout her community. She’s also volunteered with the Salvation Army, hospital patients, and the Special Olympics. Still, she wanted to do more.

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“I got and talk to schools about the importance of being kind to one another, and creating kindness challenges for them,” said Brianna. “Intertwining my platform with the national Miss America Organization partner, one of the first challenges I present is for the kids to collet coins for the Children’s Miracle Network. I speak with other local organizations such as our Scottsbluff Kiwanis Club about my platform. Whenever I volunteer or make an appearance, I also give away shirts, lanyards, bracelets and chapsticks with the Be Kind, Be The Change logo to remind people to always remember they, too, can be the change.”

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Brianna, a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Scottsbluff High School who has already earned an astonishing 51 college credits, notes the facts and statistics that back up the impact movements like her platform can have.. and the problems we all see in society without this work.

“The biggest issue facing my generation is self image,” said Brianna. “There are so many expectations for kids and teens that are both mentally and physically exhausting. There always seems to be something about yourself that needs change, from outward appearance to how to act. 20% of kids and teens in any given year will experience depression. 14% will at least consider suicide. 8% will make an actual attempt on their life. This is one of the many reasons why my platform is so tremendously needed. As a society, we need to change how we view the world and treat people.”

 

 

Reinforcing Brianna’s message are the connections and friendships she’s made by being part of the Miss Nebraska Organization.

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“The girls are amazing, kind and very likeminded,” said Brianna. “When they say it’s a sisterhood, it’s true. No matter what happens, I will have spent countless hours with some of the most wonderful women across Nebraska.”

Maya Angelou once said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

Brianna Little shows through her words and actions she is brilliant, driven and determined. She is an award-winning cheerleader, a future University of Nebraska-Lincoln college student who hopes to become a Maternal Fetal Medicine Obstetrician. People certainly see the impact she’s having already, named just this week as a 2018 Miss Nebraska Community Service Award finalist.

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Photo courtesy Kamie Stephen Photography

Still, she hopes she’s remembered for KINDNESS. For making people feel better about themselves and the world around them, and for paying that powerful feeling forward to impact change in others.

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Photo courtesy Timmy James Photo

“Knowing just how much of an impact I can make is the sole reason I pursued the title of Miss Nebraska 2018 and wanted to be part of this,” said Brianna. “Beyond the title, I want to show everyone what I stand for and share my message. I hope to inspire people to push the limits of their capabilities and always reach ahead of them to the next great thing awaiting in life. For me, if that is the title of Miss Nebraska, I will be thrilled and ready to represent my state sharing my platform.”

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To follow Scotts Bluff County Brianna Little click here.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT BRIANNA?

CLICK HERE * 2017 * Energizer Bunny

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Bring It On

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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 Alliance Kodi Baumann

COMING SOON.. Miss Chadron Kaelia Nelson

Persistence

I’m biased, but my son is BRILLIANT. OK, I’m exaggerating, but actually, not by much.. at just 7 years old, he’s already reading at a grade level several higher than his own, he LOVES math and science, and I’m convinced he has a photographic memory. Many aspects of learning come easy to him… so he gets frustrated when something presents a challenge he can’t master on his first attempt. It’s a lesson my husband is always helping him learn, that sometimes, we have to try a little harder and it makes success that much sweeter.

We saw proof of that the other night.. playing a video game at home. Easton FINALLY beat a ‘boss’ that he’d been working on for days, persistently working through the same level over and over again. ‘YEEESSSSSSS!’ he shouted, a huge smile on his tiny face, and he quickly turned around to make sure Brian was watching. We were 🙂

Flashback 16 years to an auditorium in Kearney. Tina Foehlinger stood on that stage, and FINALLY heard her name called as the winner of the Miss Tri-Cities Pageant. In the months leading up to that moment, she had competed in SIX locals, finishing first runner up SIX DIFFERENT TIMES. She never quit.

Neither did Courtney Pelland.

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Courtney has traveled Nebraska since last summer, hoping to win a local title and advance to the Miss Nebraska Pageant this summer. Time after time, she was named a finalist, leading to one last attempt in February.

“I was competing in my hometown, North Platte,” Courtney told me. “When my name was called, the crowd went wild. Being crowned in my hometown was an honor, and to have so many supporters there made my crowning 10 times more special.”

 

 

Courtney has dreamed of becoming Miss Nebraska for nearly a decade now, when she was a Little Sister to then Miss Omaha Brittany Jeffers. With Courtney at her side, Brittany went on to win Miss Nebraska and become our state’s first Top 10 finalist at the Miss America Pageant in 25 years. (Click here for photos!)

“I knew competing in pageants would help build my confidence, develop my interview skills, help pay for college, and build amazing friendships,” said Courtney. “I can proudly say I have friends across Nebraska and it is truly amazing how we inspire one another.”

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This is Courtney’s third year competing for a state title, first as Miss Sugar Valley’s Outstanding Teen, then Miss Fur Trade Days, and now, as Miss Nebraska State Fair. She’s used each title to advocate for a cause very personal for her: blood donation. Courtney has Celiac Disease, the latest in a series of diagnoses her sophomore year of high school that sent her to the hospital and in dire need of blood.

“My favorite part of being a titleholder has been touching the lives of kids, teens and adults with my personal story, and by simply listening what they have to say,” said Courtney. “I love telling them about the importance of blood donation and how someone save my life because of their donations.”

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Courtney has also helped organize blood drives, spoken to media and spread awareness in both North Platte and Fremont, where she attends college. Her goal is to collect 200 pledges by June 1st, no small goal considering she is also a full-time Midland University student, education funded in part due to the $60,000 in scholarships she received from Midland at last year’s Miss Nebraska Pageant.

“My career goal is to become a Labor and Delivery Nurse. I love children and babies!” said Courtney. “I may want to work in Children’s Hospital & Medical Center one day. Being a part of the Miss Nebraska Organization has inspired me; I’ve been raising money for them for four years, so why not continue giving back to them when I’m a nurse!”

That smile and passion for life are present everywhere this young woman goes, whether it to be a classroom, a donation site, or to a performance with the award-winning Midland Warriors Dance Team (yeah, Courtney dances, too.)

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“My role model is my dance coach, Katie Speicher,” said Courtney. “She came into a team that had just won the NAIA National Championships for 2017, moving from California to Nebraska just to coach a team like us. She has had her battles throughout the year but has overcome them. I am so proud of her for everything she has accomplished and she is someone I truly look up to.”

Now, Courtney is cementing that legacy for herself. She’s building a reputation as a strong woman who never gives up, just like Tina Foehlinger did 17 years ago.

Tina

Photo courtesy Ben Fogletto for Press of Atlantic City

Just months after Tina FINALLY won a local title, she was crowned Miss Nebraska 2001 and then a Top 20 semi-finalist at the Miss America Pageant on national TV.

Colin Powell once said, ‘success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty and persistence.’ Courtney Pelland is hoping to find the meaning of that message early this summer.

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Photo courtesy Kamie Stephen Photography

“Success to me is when you achieve your personal dreams and goals,” said Courtney. “Of course, I would love to win, but in all I want to walk away with a whole new group of best friends through an amazing organization. I would love to make Top 8; I’ve been working really hard and I hope I can achieve that.”

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To follow Miss Nebraska State Fair Courtney Pelland on Facebook, click here.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT COURTNEY?

CLICK HERE * 2017 * College Ready

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Everyday America

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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 Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen Jade Vak

NEXT.. Miss Twin River’s Outstanding Teen Rachel Young

Choosing Hope

She had just started school, her junior year at North Platte High School. True to form, she was already juggling activities, academics, and bigger plans, using an open period one day to run home and mail paperwork to compete once again for Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.

That day, August 23, 2017, something was wrong. She pulled up to the farm where her father had been working in the shop on the property.

Smoke.

Father and daughter tried to get inside, and were engulfed in black smoke at the front door. They called 911.. and watched fire devour the building their family had called home for more than 50 years.

Within 30 minutes, every physical possession Whitney Miller owned was gone.

“The one thing I always think about is that I’m glad it happened when it did, while no one was home,” said Whitney. “My young sister, Felicity, is 5. She was the most confused. We were all just struck with confusion. We had just lost everything, we lost home. Once the fire was out we had the whole family out there to talk about what the heck just happened and how we are going to move forward.”

Whitney Miller and her family chose hope.

Miller fam

They stayed in hotels, thanks to the help of local churches, who also provided toiletries, clothes, and food. Faith gave the Millers much more: a view of not only the mountain they had to climb, but the oasis beyond.

“There is a bright side to everything and even though it was hard to find this time, we are doing great and are forever grateful to everyone who helped us get back to normal,” said Whitney.

That message of hope and gratitude is what Whitney is now sharing with children from North Platte to Omaha, as Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen.

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“One of my favorite parts of being a titleholder is being able to share my story with others that are trying to overcome adversity in their lives,” said Whitney. “My platform, Choose Hope, is centered around a step-by-step guide to help others overcome life’s struggles.”

 

 

Whitney also works to inspire self confidence in others, something she says she’s gained from her mother, (“She has always set such a good example for me”), from her time as Miss Western Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen last year and now, a titleholder once again, working to vie for the state title.

“I decided to compete in the Miss Nebraska program because I admired the girls who competed,” said Whitney. “One of my favorite moments [was in Omaha] when I got to meet all the other contestants and learn about them. We as young teens should be uplifting and encouraging to each other rather than tearing one another down. One of my goals is to truly enjoy the time spent with the other contestants, and the experience itself.”

Whitney

From Charles Dickens:

“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

What was your one, memorable day? And how did you respond?

When Whitney Miller looks back at August 23, 2017, she focuses on the positive and the future. She remembers a day she chose hope.

Whitney Miller official

Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

“It’s something we will never forget,” said Whitney. “It made our family’s bond even stronger.”

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To follow Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen Whitney Miller on Facebook, click here.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WHITNEY?

CLICK HERE * 2017 * Cheer Rules

For more information about the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program or to become a contestant, CLICK HERE to follow the organization on Facebook, or CLICK HERE to follow the organization on Twitter. You can also contact Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com or Director Kali Tripp at KaliNicoleTV@gmail.com.

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The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Competition takes place April 28 in North Omaha, Nebraska.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Alliance’s Outstanding Teen Chloe Blumanthal

NEXT.. Miss Douglas County Krista Hinrichs

 

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.

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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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Like what you’re reading? Consider supporting Anchor’s Away! Email brandipetersenomaha@gmail.com for information on advertising.

Just Like Fire

Aleah Peters woke up this morning as Miss Nebraska for the last time.

This is the 36th blog post I’ve written this spring about the Miss Nebraska and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen contestants. Out loud, that’s been my excuse for why it’s taken me so long to write an article about Aleah, her final send-off in blog form. Subconsciously, I think I’ve been avoiding writing this.. because I want her to stay Miss Nebraska forever.

Miss Nebraska 2016 Aleah Peters

As volunteers, we work so hard to make Miss Nebraska relevant, memorable, a woman with substance in our state. From Day 1, Aleah GOT IT. She used every single moment of her year to make a difference, to market herself, to positively represent the Miss Nebraska brand and to take our organization to the next level. She is kind, she is passionate, she is hardworking, she is dedicated, she is down-to-earth, she is smart, she is talented, she is powerful. And with tears in my eyes as I write this, I’m not ready to see her go.

She hugged every child who approached her, and signed every autograph. She accepted every media interview I threw at her, and nailed it with charisma, articulation and humor. She thanked, acknowledged and was truly grateful for every supporter and loved one who stood by her throughout her journey to Miss Nebraska three times and to Miss America. She crisscrossed the state, visiting 2-3 schools every week in addition to fundraisers, galas, and volunteer events. She awed students with her innate talent to twirl, but many remember her long after for the powerful, personal message about bullying she brought to thousands. We want a Miss Nebraska who makes a difference. Aleah Peters changed our part of the world, one visit at a time.

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“I can’t believe that my year is already over and pretty soon it will be someone else’s turn,” Aleah told me recently. “This year has been a huge blessing and an amazing opportunity. Truly a transformational year. Although I feel like I blinked and it was over, there were some weekends and days that felt like a long year of work. A few drives that seemed to take forever or weeks jam-packed with events and appearances I thought would never end. But I wouldn’t trade the long weeks or long drives for anything. Being Miss Nebraska is work. It is a full-time job, but luckily, it’s a fun job.”

When Aleah was crowned Miss Nebraska 2016, she had just graduated from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. She was a mature young woman who truly understood that this moment of sheer excitement was just the beginning of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one that she embraced and ran with from day one.

“I had a very clear idea of the job that I was applying for and what I was getting myself into,” said Aleah. “I knew what I wanted to accomplish as Miss Nebraska and I knew I wanted to share my message in schools. However, I didn’t realize what a voice I had or what an impact I could make until I did. I never knew how many kids needed to hear my message. I never knew how many eyes would light up when I walked into a room. I never knew I had the power to make every child in the room silent by telling my story. That is how this job became so much more than a job.”

Throughout her years just competing for the title of Miss Nebraska, Aleah spoke to thousands of students about Cyberbullying Awareness. As she told me throughout that journey (click here to read more!) her passion was based on her own experiences being bullied as a teenager by a group of girls from school. Her mission to #MakeKindnessViral is increasingly important in today’s climate of technology and anonymous assault; even Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has made Cyber Safety a key platform based on ongoing problems affecting children, adults and businesses across our state and beyond. Schools across Nebraska asked Aleah to come in and talk to their students, and in October, DeMoine Adams and Teammates brought Aleah on board to visit even more.

Several principals within Westside Community Schools invited Aleah in after she was crowned Miss Nebraska, asking her to share her platform. Over and over, she told hundreds of students about those dark days when she was afraid to answer the phone, when she was afraid to leave her house, when ‘mean girls’ simply made her life hell. In every presentation, she found ways to connect with the students she spoke with, helping them understand her story and hopefully, sending them back out into the world more equipped to deal with bullies, and less likely to become one themselves. One of Westside’s Teacher Leaders told me months later, “our students still talk about her and what she said.” This same scenario played out at schools over and over again throughout this past year.

Ruth

“One little girl in a wheelchair asked her teacher if I would meet with her after the school assembly to help her with her project,” said Aleah. “She explained to me that she experienced bullying because she is different from the other students. Another powerful moment was when I spoke in a town that recently experienced a suicide. Many of the students raised their hands to ask what I thought of suicide. It was very clear that there were still some open wounds and a lot of healing for the town but the students were trying to learn more and understand why this happened. Any time a student approaches me and lets me know that they appreciated hearing my story, it makes it all worth it.”

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“One of the highlights of my year was meeting Dr. Mark Adler,” said Aleah. “[Dr. Adler is] the Superintendent of Ralston Public Schools who lost his son to suicide because of cyberbullying. Dr. Adler thanked me for the work I was doing, and that meant a lot to me.”

Aleah’s stories from each visit are varied and often, hilarious. To countless children, especially our youngest Nebraskans, Aleah was a princess personified.

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“I will never get over walking into an elementary school assembly and seeing their eyes light up,” said Aleah. “At one school, the principal was trying to get the students to quiet down and she said ‘obviously we have a very special guest with us here today’ and they all started applauding. Elementary school kids are so much fun and they asked the silliest questions. ‘Did you take a limo to get here?’ ‘Do you live in a castle?’ It was always fun to explain what Miss Nebraska is to them. In one 3rd grade class we lined up to take a picture and the teacher told a student to stop being goofy. With a grin from ear to ear he said ‘I’m so happy right now.’

Among Aleah’s favorite moments as Miss Nebraska was representing our state at the 2017 Miss America Pageant.

“Miss America was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Aleah. “I am so happy for Savvy Shields, our Miss America 2016. She is an incredible Miss America and is doing a GREAT job. Regardless of how the competition went, I still won. I won 51 new friends. I won with the relationships I made. I walked away from the competition so fulfilled. I put my very best on the floor and that is exactly what I wanted to do regardless of what place I earned. Some of my favorite Miss America moments include: catching my somersault trick on stage and going crazy! I ran off stage with pure joy and excitement and jumped into Chris the security guard’s arms. I love twirling for an audience and that was one of the most adrenaline rushing performances I have ever done. Another Miss America moment that I look back on and appreciate now is filming our introductions in a hurricane warning. The wind was insane! We went from an amusement park to go out on a boat. I remember curling up in a ball because I was freezing, more than ready to get off, when the camera crew said ‘let’s do that again!'”

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“After we all got done with our swimsuit prelim competitions we crushed about 10 pizzas between 8 girls at our meeting that night,” said Aleah. “I also loved seeing my cheering section in the audience. I was able to spot them right away the second I walked out because there were huge N’s and pictures of my face.”

“Through all the dinners, rehearsals, and late night meetings, I just remember laughing for two weeks straight,” said Aleah. “I won so much more out of the Miss America competition than a crown and scholarship money. I made memories and friendships to last me a lifetime.”

In one of Aleah’s last school visits, she talked to a group of Kindergartners about success. She shared how she competed for Miss Nebraska three times.. winning 3rd place, and then 2nd place before winning our state title. She explained to these children that to her, success was more than just winning Miss Nebraska… it was about working hard, having a great attitude, and being the best version of herself she could be.

To Aleah Peters, this year has been so much more than a pretty crown. She has maintained an INCREDIBLE physique because she learned how to be healthier as part of this journey, and stuck with it. She continued to visit schools and schedule appearances even after her time at Miss America was done, because she wanted to make a difference with the time she had. She opened her heart to this year’s 16 Miss Nebraska contestants, constantly offering guidance and support. She talked about the $26,585 in cash scholarships she has won, and encouraged other young women to sign up for the same journey she’s had.

“I wanted people to know Miss Nebraska,” said Aleah. “I wanted people to relate to her, to be able to talk to her, to try on her crown, learn how to twirl baton, and to be inspired by her.”

As this journey ends, Aleah, true to form, is ready to begin another. She is getting married in September and moving to Florida, where she plans to work in communications.

“The Miss America Organization has given me so much,” said Aleah. “Not only scholarship money and best friends but it has helped me become the best version of myself. It has helped me find a passion in service. This organization has transformed me into the type of woman I want to be. It has given me confidence, shown me what commitment and dedication look like, and pushed me to accomplish more than I thought was possible. I am excited for the big changes ahead! Only God knows what is in store for me and I am so excited for him to show me.”

GIRLS WITH ME

I’m having a hard time perfectly explaining why this woman is such an incredible role model not just to countless children, but to ALL (myself included!) I am in complete awe of how she takes care of herself, eating healthy and getting to the gym everyday despite her crazy schedule. I am so impressed with her strategic business skills marketing herself to make the most out of every moment of this year. I am humbled and inspired by her sheer kindness and goodness, even towards the ‘mean girls’ who inspired the life changing messages she’s taken to so many.

“I think everyone should be proud of all they have accomplished, including those mean girls,” said Aleah. “So instead I say thank you for giving me a story to share. Thank you for allowing me to relate to so many children who have been bullied. To freshman year Aleah, [I would say] you will get through it and you still be stronger because of it. Appreciate the obstacles you’ve had to overcome because they shape who you are.”

We all wake up every morning with a choice.. to get through the day, or to use every day to our full advantage. The Miss Nebraska Class of 2017 has already accomplished so much in their communities, on their campuses and for so many others around them. They each have a spark; so did Aleah at this time last year. And look what she did with it… a young woman who became Miss Nebraska and simply put, was just like fire.

Just like fire, burning out the way
If I can light the world up for just one day
Watch this madness, colorful charade
No one can be just like me any way
Just like magic, I’ll be flying free
I’mma disappear when they come for me
I kick that ceiling, what you gonna say?
No one can be just like me any way..

No one will EVER be like Aleah Peters. Thank you for your smile. Thank you for your spirit. Thank you for your heart. Thank you for being YOU, our forever Miss Nebraska.

“Appreciate the little things, word hard and dream BIG! Build each other up instead of tearing each other down. Realize that you can always find a commonality with someone and you can always learn from someone. Be a friend and make kindness viral. Appreciate the journey every step of the way.”

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WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALEAH?

CLICK HERE * 2016 * The Year of the Phoenix

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Fighting For Hope

CLICK HERE * 2014 * How Do You Like Me Now?

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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 Harvest Moon Festival 2017 Lianna Prill

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!

Can’t Stop The Feeling

It was one of those days where, from the moment I opened my eyes, I just thought ‘nope, not gonna do today.’ I should’ve just called a mulligan on this one, turned off my alarm, and gone back to sleep.

In our house, we’re big fans of the movie Trolls. I’d like to think I’m more Poppy than Branch.. and anyone who’s heard my car concerts on my daily commute will echo that this girl loves to sing (and scrapbook!) But sometimes, my inner Branch takes over and negativity, criticism, and pessimism cloud over everything and take hold of my attitude and psyche. The singing stops, the smile fades, and I a) eat my feelings and/or b) pout, feel sorry for myself, and waste away what might have been a great day.

It’s a life lesson that, at 36 years old, I still haven’t mastered. How do you take life’s hits, rise above and prove to the world you are a BOSS? At just 18 years old, a high school student in small town Nebraska has made it her mission to do just that.

Miss Chadron 2017 Shaniah Freeseman

“I’ve learned over the years that it’s okay to not sweat the small stuff, and to just enjoy life,” Shaniah told me recently. “It’s too short to waste time away with worries and regrets.”

Shaniah has faced some tough choices over the years, namely her decision several years ago to move from one parent’s home hundreds of miles away to another. As Shaniah described to me last year (click here to read more!), this move didn’t just include changes at home; everything in her life was new and different.

“Leaving wasn’t easy; I moved to a new school, with all new people, and was the ‘new girl’ in a small town,” said Shaniah. “It took a lot out of me emotionally and multiple problems arose. I didn’t truly find myself until I was a sophomore in high school when I was tired of being the one who no one really knew.”

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It was around that same time Shaniah discovered something called the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Organization.

“The minute I heard about it, something sparked my interest,” said Shaniah. “It wasn’t the dresses or the makeup, it was more of what the organization offered. I have always loved to help people and I’ve always had a drive to share my statement with others. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to help build my own character and find my true self, along with helping others throughout it all.”

Shaniah served as Miss Alliance’s Outstanding Teen 2015Miss Panhandle’s Outstanding Teen 2016, and in this, the first year she was eligible, was crowned Miss Chadron 2017 and an official contestant in the Miss Nebraska Pageant.

“At state, I’m going to have the best time ever, make amazing friends and endless memories,” said Shaniah. “No matter what the outcome, it’s the experience that’s important to me and gaining experience will help me and my future as I continue this journey.”

A journey Shaniah is taking full advantage of, and appreciating, every step of the way.

Shaniah has volunteered from one end of city limits to the other in her adopted hometown of Gordon, Nebraska. She visits classrooms and civic groups, hoping to connect with everyone she meets with, especially children. She shares her platform, ‘Overcoming Adversity in Order to Be Your Best’, and uses her own story to ensure her message resonates with everyone.

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“In addition to emotional and social adversity, I’ve also faced physical adversity,” said Shaniah. “I was a three sport athlete and I’ve overcome two significant injuries in basketball that set me back, one almost ending my athletic career for good. It was a hard decision for me, but I chose not to play basketball my senior year. As tough as [that decision] was, through hard work, exercise and nutrition, I have gained everything back from my injury. I am at full strength and have received a full ride volleyball scholarship.”

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And for Shaniah, there’s no coulda woulda shoulda. The time she might have been on the basketball court, Shaniah spent focusing on her new title and preparing for Miss Nebraska.

“I am a firm believer that pageants give young women the opportunity to gain many lifelong skills and attributes,” said Shaniah. “From personal experience, I can honestly say that I have become a more well rounded person, enhancing my poise, confidence and leadership skills from my years of competing.”

At the end of Trolls, after countless displays of love, perseverance and bravery, Poppy is named Queen. Shaniah, who describes herself as confident, driven and compassionate, already has her crown… and her journey is just beginning. Sometimes, all any of us needs is a reminder we all have happiness inside, a light brighter than any dark. Poppy, and Shaniah, remind me to crank up my radio and put Can’t Stop The Feeling on repeat.

“My mission is to share my story of struggle and strife with those who have some sort of adversity they’re facing,” said Shaniah. “There is always a person there to listen and there is always a way to get through something even if it seems like it’s impossible. I understand firsthand how hard it can be to have the confidence to overcome something that seems impossible. But with my continued faith and my determination to become better, I have achieved the goals that I set for my life and continue to reach every opportunity I can.”

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Click here to follow Miss Chadron 2017 Shaniah Freeseman on Facebook!

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SHANIAH?

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Divergent

CLICK HERE * 2015 * Nebraska’s Top Model

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.. The Perfect 10: Recap of the 2017 Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant

NEXT.. Miss Queen City of the Plains 2017 Jaicelyn Shakespare

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!

Courage With a Smile

Each of us has a hidden story.. something we don’t openly share with others because it’s embarrassing, something we can’t change, something we wish would just GO AWAY.

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I’ve performed the national anthem DOZENS of times in the Omaha area for crowds of a few hundred to 15,000+.  Last fall, I waited off-ice at UNO’s first hockey game of the season, ready to perform once more.  I was running through the lyrics in my head, and about two minutes before I was up… I BLANKED.  I got to a middle stanza in the anthem and could not come up with the words.  In a panic, I googled the lyrics on my phone, just to have them ready in my pocket if my memory didn’t kick back into gear.

It didn’t.  In front of 5,000 fans, I had to pull out my phone in the middle of our country’s anthem and look down for help.  I LOVE MY COUNTRY.  I KNOW THIS SONG.  AND I WAS MORTIFIED.

I still shudder when I think about it… because to anyone who HADN’T heard me sing before, I will forever be the idiot who didn’t know the words to the national anthem.  I’ve only performed the anthem once since then… terrified this could happen again.

Now, an example of COURAGE.  A woman who not only accepts mistakes, she shares them to empower others to shrug their shoulders, learn and move on.

Miss Twin Rivers 2017 Emma Wilkinson

Though I had interviewed Emma last year during her time as Miss Chadron’s Outstanding Teen, I had never heard her perform.  When she sang at the 2016 Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant.. this was me in the audience.

Emma won 1st runner up, an honor in large part due to that extraordinary vocal performance.  It’s something she’s quite accustomed to; a senior at North Platte High School, Emma’s earned the lead role in school productions, she’s a member of the NPHS Pacers dance team, and and she’s competed in multiple vocal and dance competitions.  CLICK HERE to read the North Platte Telegraph’s article on Emma when she was crowned in February.

Just this week, Emma shared a clip of her performance as part of a high school music contest.  (CLICK HERE TO WATCH!)  BUT… she also noted on the same post, ‘this was before I forgot the words.’  She wrote: After working for a month, I let myself down when I forgot many of the lyrics due to nerves and poor confidence. I walked away extremely upset with my performance. • I have chosen to take this experience as a lesson. All I can do from here is work harder next time, show up with confidence, and hope that I prove my worth. • Always take each experience as an opportunity to become a better you, no matter the end result. #motivationmonday#missnebraska2017

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Emma Wilkinson will turn 18 years old tomorrow.

An amazing display of maturity, acceptance and understanding, the result of a personal journey that Emma bravely speaks about as Miss Twin Rivers 2017.

“My platform, ‘Rethink Your Drink’, is focused on informing children of alcoholic parents that they are not alone,” Emma told me recently, noting alcoholism has touched her family as well.  “Once I reached the fifth grade, I made a best friend with similar experiences to my own.  We shared our struggles and helped each other cope with the pain brought about by alcoholism.  Addiction does not have to debilitate a child’s aptitude to achieve success and I want to spread those words like wildfire, especially to those who need to hear them most.”

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Emma has visited several schools throughout the North Platte area to share her story, her message carrying extra weight as a local girl who will compete right in her city at this summer’s Miss Nebraska Pageant.  As she told me last year, it was those former Miss Nebraska’s (namely Brittany Jeffers and Becky Smith-Wagner) who greatly impacted her life as she grew up.

“I hope to reach every person when making appearances by sharing the negative effects that alcohol can leave on everyone,” said Emma.  “Children are often informed about alcohol in elementary school, but I feel like they forget about the dangers of alcohol once they are surrounded by it in high school.  This is about spreading awareness of alcoholism in order to make people realize that it is not a rare occurrence.”

Emma is also already taking her title statewide, including a 8-hour roundtrip trek to Omaha to take part in the Miss Nebraska Princess Party fundraiser last month.  Emma and Miss Fur Trade Days Courtney Pelland left North Platte early, met dozens of little girls at the event, and drove BACK to North Platte the same day to take part in a dance team gala the same night.

“The amazing thing about the Miss Nebraska Organization is that it brings together poised, confident and beautiful young women from all over the state to catalyze positive change,” said Emma.  “Whenever I see one of our girls at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospital visiting patients, I hold a huge smile on my face because this is what we’re about; making a positive impact within every life we can.”

And that includes their own lives.  Emma notes her own growth within the last year alone, crediting it to her time as both a teen and now miss titleholder.

“My social skills and confidence have improved the most through appearances and performances,” said Emma.  “My main goal is to use my platform as a tool to serve as a mentor to those who are affected by alcoholism, but I also want to continue to grow as a person through this organization.  I am one of the youngest in the pageant this year; I have so much more to learn and I trust this will help me become the best woman I can be.”

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A woman who aims to be warm and open to others.  A woman who is open-minded and remains positive, despite challenges and hurdles she has come across throughout her life.

“I do not judge someone based upon their values and beliefs,” said Emma.  “Everyone has been raised in different ways and has gone through different struggles; it is incredibly important to me that we accept people as they are.”

Someday, I want to sing the anthem again just to prove to myself that I will not let one embarrassing moment define me.  And if I feel those nerves, that fear, bubbling up again… I will remind myself of this amazing young woman, suck it up, smile, and rock every single lyric.  Here’s hoping I make my hometown as proud of Emma Wilkinson is making hers.

“I sometimes get upset when people think that our pageant is all about beauty, but I’ve realized, maybe it is about beauty; the beauty found within,” said Emma.  “Through any circumstance, I try to remain as positive as possible.  Any challenge can be overcome and I like to live through those words within every aspect of my life.”

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Click here to follow Miss Twin Rivers 2017 Emma Wilkinson on Facebook!

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT EMMA?

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Sister Act

Emma was crowned at Crowns & Gowns 2017, Nebraska’s largest annual prom/pageant showcase.  CLICK HERE for more details about the 2018 pageant and event! For more information about the Miss Twin Rivers/Miss Sandhills Pageant or for information about becoming a contestant, CLICK HERE to follow the organization on Facebook.

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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 Old West Balloon Fest’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Sheridan Blanco

NEXT.. Miss Fur Trade Days’ Outstanding Teen 2017 Cherokee Purviance

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!

She Thinks She Can

This year, 16 incredible women will compete to become Miss Nebraska 2017.  18 hope to become Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.  Every one of them is already making an impact on people and the world around them and for decades, visiting schools has been a constant thread linking generations of contestants.

Classrooms are hotbeds for knowledge and learning; about the 3 R’s, about social skills, about the arts and more.  It’s no different when Miss Nebraska titleholders visit schools and share their messages.. but how do you talk to a first grader about the serious issues these women are trying to impact?  How do you write a lesson plan about sexual assault, cancer, or in one teen’s case, a chronic health diagnosis?

It’s a challenge Sheridan Blanco has eagerly accepted.

Miss Old West Balloon Fest’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Sheridan Blanco

“One challenge I face everyday is Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis,” Sheridan told me recently.  “I have not let this affect or limit what I accomplish.”

Sheridan served as Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen last year and competed for Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.  Almost immediately, she jumped back in to try again, winning the title of Miss Old West Balloon Fest’s Outstanding Teen over the summer.

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(Side note: Old West Balloon Fest is a huge, annual event in Mitchell, Nebraska.  16+ hot air balloons go up simultaneously to coincide with the historic Old West weekend!)

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After the annual ride into the clouds, Sheridan got back to work sharing her story.  She focuses on the bigger picture, calling her platform ‘Conquering Challenges.’

“Many challenges people face can be unknown to others,” said Sheridan.  “Since we do not know what people are going through, we need to show empathy and be kind to everyone around us to help them through their challenges.  I have taken this opportunity to overcome my own challenge and turn it into an opportunity to strive to be a positive role model and an inspiration to others.”

Sheridan National Night Out

Sheridan, a Gering High student and Gering native, volunteers throughout her community at events.  Often times, she joins forces with her sister queens in Western Nebraska to make an even bigger impact.

“Pageants bring out the strengths of the young women involved,” said Sheridan.  “We may not know each other when we first arrive, but by the end of the competition many of us become very close.  Some of my best friendships came from doing pageants.  [They] give young ladies an opportunity to present a platform and to represent the values, integrity and scholarship that is an integral part of the pageant process.”

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And terrific attributes for a maturing young woman learning more about the world around her.  Sheridan has been selected for All-State Band, Doane Honor Band and Chadron Honor Band. She’s a state speech qualifier, and a national DECA qualifier.  She has been selected for the All-State Academic Team for Tennis two years running, and is a dancer on the Gering High POMS team.  She’s an Honor Roll student, a member of the National Honor Society, and a Best Actress Award recipient.

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“This organization helps young women gain confidence, poise, and public speaking,” said Sheridan.  “These are important skills to have for the future no matter what occupational path is taken.  The benefits are for a lifetime and provide a remarkable experience.”

One that’s taking Sheridan to Omaha next weekend to once again compete for the state title.  No doubt she’ll stop at a few classrooms along the way… which brings us back to that challenge about the message.  How do you help children understand the deeper meaning behind the sparkly crown?

“When I go to schools I read ‘The Little Engine That Could’,” said Sheridan.  “This way the younger kids can see the challenge that the train faces and how friends around him help him to conquer his challenge of getting up the hill.  I usually tell kids that the best way to get through the day is to wake up and be positive!”

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She thinks she can, she thinks she can, she thinks she can… and Sheridan Blanco plans to show everyone at Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.

“The main goal is to do the best you can, have fun, and hopefully win,” said Sheridan.  “My mission is to be the best representative for the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Organization.  It would be a terrific honor to promote this organization and its high standards to other teens across the state.”

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WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SHERIDAN?

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Let’s Dance

For more information about the Miss Old West Balloon Fest Outstanding Teen Pageant or to become a contestant, CLICK HERE to visit their website, or CLICK HERE to visit their site on Facebook!  You can also contact Director Cheryl Engelhaupt by email at cengelhaupt@fnbnp.com or by phone at 308-783-2940.

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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 TwitterHERE 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 Twin Rivers’ Outstanding Teen 2017 Katy Greene

NEXT.. Miss Twin Rivers 2017 Emma Wilkinson

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!