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Not Only Beauty Queens Get the Money

Education: With more than $9 million in assets, the Miss America Organization offers gifts, grants and scholarships to anyone in need.

September 07, 1997|JOHN CURRAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Vivian Garner, 44, is a wheelchair-using graduate student at an Alabama college. Susan Blake, 21, studies accounting in North Carolina. Jennifer Hall, 16, is a high school junior in Connecticut.

None has competed in a beauty pageant. But they are among dozens of people nationwide who have benefited from the Miss America Pageant's expanding commitment to education.

With a fat bank account and a never-ending desire to remake Miss America's image, pageant officials are looking to spread the wealth.

"It didn't require beauty, it was more what you did for other people," said Hall, who was living below the poverty line when she won a $10,000 scholarship for higher education.

Since Bess Myerson took home a $5,000 scholarship with the crown in 1945, the pageant has provided more than $100 million in scholarships to its contestants. The pageant and its affiliates made available $32 million in aid a year ago.

Most money goes to contestants, including $40,000 to the woman who will be crowned Miss America 1998 on Sept. 13.

But with more than $9 million in assets at the start of the fiscal year, according to its tax return, the pageant is looking to give some away.

"There are many more segments of society in need of mentoring services and financial assistance to continue their education," said Leonard Horn, the pageant's chief executive. "The Miss America Organization is in a unique position to help."

The money is spread in a number of ways.

A $25,000 gift goes to a college chosen by the reigning Miss America. The Miss America Foundation Youth America scholarship is awarded to an eighth-grade girl living in poverty and held in trust until she graduates high school; Hall in 1994 was the first recipient.

Then there is a grant for a woman who inspired one Miss America. School-to-work advocate J.D. Hoye was chosen by Miss America 1996 Shawntel Smith; that year's $100,000 prize was made into a scholarship fund that has been tapped by 45 students and teachers.

The pageant also provided about $100,000 last year to help finance $1,000 scholarships given to hundreds of high school students across the country.

Garner, who survived polio as a child but uses a wheelchair due to post-polio syndrome, got $500 last year, thanks to Miss America 1995 Heather Whitestone.

Whitestone sent her $25,000 Miss America College Scholarship to her school, Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala., where Garner is a single mother studying for a master's degree in counseling.

"It was a lifesaver for me," she said. "Being a disabled student, and a graduate student, there's not a lot of assistance available. But I was able to pay for books and supplies with that money. Without it, there's a good possibility I would've had to quit graduate school."

Blake, a student at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, used a $1,000 scholarship created by the donation from Miss America 1994 Kimberly Aiken to study international business in London.

"I was one of those people who didn't realize (the pageant) benefited other people besides those that participate," Blake said.

Hall said winning the award helped her self-esteem. She said she hopes to study psychology in college.

"You always think of pageant people as beautiful, intelligent and of exceptional quality. It was so exciting to me that I could win it," she said. "It made me feel like I should keep working, that I had something to look forward to."

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