Miss America: From child of a prison inmate to beauty queen – South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com
6:10 p.m. EDT, June 27, 2012
What can a beauty queen say to at-risk kids?
Plenty — if, like many of them, she’s been a child of a jailed parent.
Laura Kaeppeler on Wednesday calmed the sometimes-talky young audience at Highlands Christian Academy, as she told of overcoming the stigma and emotional injuries of her father’s incarceration to become the current Miss America.
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“I grew up with an alcoholic dad who was never in my life,” Kaeppeler told her 125 listeners during a Prison Fellowship camp. “I felt I’d accomplish nothing in life because of something out of my control.
“[But] I’m a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason,” she continued. “If you work hard, believe in yourself, dream big, I stand before you to say it really can come true.”
The three-day Champions Sports Camp is organized by Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree ministry, an outreach to inmates and their children founded by the late Chuck Colson.
Kaeppeler was in town to receive the organization’s first-ever Star of Victory Award, for inmate children who have grown up to achieve.
The camp had other prominent helpers as well. The emcee was Erika Harold, Miss America 2003 and a board member of Prison Fellowship. And Ariann Denison, choreographer for the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders, organized a dance performance by some of the campers. Directing the camp was Tyrus McCloud, a retired linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.
“This is my passion, helping at-risk youths,” said McCloud, a Coral Springs resident. “You’d be amazed, one word can plant a seed in these kids’ lives.”
It seemed to work for camper Jeffrey Charlotte, 14, who said his father has been in prison for years.
“The speech made me think; it made sense,” said the youth, attending with friends from First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale. “I’m trying to stay away from that track. I can make a better choice.”
The camp is one form of outreach by Angel Tree to children of inmates, including 8,000 in South Florida. It also provides volunteer mentoring and annual Christmas gifts, often donated through churches.
Christina Allen, 24, of Boynton Beach, was among those who got Angel Tree gifts as a child in the name of her father, who has been serving time since she was 3. She and husband Kevin now run their own foundation to give gifts.
“You can make the best of a situation, or you can allow a situation to get the best of you,” Allen told the campers “It’s all up to you.”
After the formalities, Kaeppeler stayed to chat and pose for photos with the kids. She confessed that it’s tough bringing up her painful memories with each speech.
“I have to put myself on the line every day,” she said. “I have to make the message hit home, that we’re the same. And that if my past didn’t define me, it doesn’t have to define them.”