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A Castoff Child Who Grew Up to Be a Queen

Activism: Foster child Venus Manuel became Miss L.A. County. She gives others hope.

July 06, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They pay attention when she strides down the Juvenile Hall corridor in her military fatigues--her jaw set, the jangle of her lockdown keys and the sound of her jump boots echoing off the stark concrete-block walls.

They pay attention when she strolls across the ballroom runway in her silk chiffon gown--a million-dollar smile on her face, a jeweled crown shimmering on her head, and applause and cheers ringing in her ears.

People pay attention to Venus Marie Manuel.

Manuel's teenage years were spent being bounced from one temporary home to another. But today, at 23, she has gone from foster child to being the poster child for how castaway kids can make good.

Manuel works as a Los Angeles County detention services officer at Central Juvenile Hall. She is an Air Force Reserve combat photographer. She just graduated with honors from Cal State Dominguez Hills and is entering grad school. And she is the reigning Miss Los Angeles County, ready to compete next week in the Miss California pageant.

In her spare time, Manuel talks with every youngster she can find who is about to be "emancipated" from the foster-care system and thrown into the adult world. She talks with every grown-up who will listen, too.

Her message to teenagers is to be optimistic and grab onto opportunities that are out there. Her message to adults is that improvements must be made to the foster-care transition system.

"In the real world, kids can go back to their parents at any age--18, 24, you name it. In foster care, you're left without a home when you turn 18. We have to teach kids more about being independent," she said.

"Kids shouldn't transition into the streets or into prostitution or the adult criminal system. It's essential to show lawmakers that it would be cheaper to put kids in college and housing than into adult institutions."

Manuel's rapport with teenagers in foster care is obvious when she pulls her Miss Los Angeles County crown from its velvet-lined Lucite case and holds it out for all to see. Eyes bulge. And jaws drop when youngsters hear that Manuel was once one of them.

"When I was in the system just five short years ago, we didn't have people want to stand by us and help us into success. My start wasn't easy, either," she told one group of teenage girls about to leave foster care last month.

"Everyone needs someone to look up to. When I was going through the foster system, I'd ask, 'Why me?' Girls, everything that's happening to you is happening for a reason. It's up to you to take your struggles and turn them into successes. I'm not going to lie to you and say it was easy. It was very difficult for me, but I got there."

Manuel lived in nine foster homes after she and her younger sister were removed from their drug-addicted parents when she was 12.

"Some of the foster homes I was in were worse than my biological home," she says. "I hated the situation they put me and my little sister through. But I looked at my mom and saw the way she struggled. I saw that I wanted to be nothing like her. So my mother saved my life."

Manuel signed up for the Air Force Reserves for the pay after graduating from Palmdale High School. After being trained as a military photographer, she enrolled at Antelope Valley College.

"In one of my classes, there were two girls who had won the Miss Lancaster and Miss Quartz Hill contests," Manuel said.

"I despised everything about that. I was the biggest tomboy ever. I hardly ever wore makeup. I wasn't blond, tall and skinny. But I became very good friends with them, and they told me about the scholarships."

Beauty contests these days award college scholarships instead of cash or cars. Still, Manuel remained uninterested in competing until her new friends told her that pageants also can be a platform for promoting personal viewpoints.

With some trepidation, Manuel entered the Miss High Desert contest two years ago and won. Her talent consisted of taekwondo moves she had learned for self-defense after being assaulted as a child. Her platform was a call for improvement in the foster-care transition system.

She entered and won the Miss Central California pageant last year. She used both scholarships to help pay her way at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she graduated in May with a degree in human services.

Judges in February's Miss Los Angeles County contest at the Brentwood Theater in West Los Angeles seemed impressed that Manuel's martial arts talent and foster-care talk reflected things she had lived, not merely lifted from the 11 o'clock news.

"Where she has come from and has come to is an inspiration," said Lynn Miller, associate director of the Los Angeles County pageant. "This girl has been through a lot. She's smart and kind and strong. People need to hear her message."

Those at the Miss California pageant Wednesday through next Saturday in Fresno, which serves as a preliminary round to September's Miss America contest in Atlantic City, will hear it.

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