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Pageant contestants give back offstage

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Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler reacts after being crowned Miss America Saturday Jan. 14, 2012 at The Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Photo by Eric Jamison/Associated Press

Wisconsin was thrust onto the national stage yet again last week, when 23-year-old Laura Kaeppeler, from Kenosha, Wis., won the annual Miss America competition in Las Vegas.

Kaeppeler will hold the title for one year, during which she will travel the country speaking to groups and raising money for the Children’s Miracle Network, the Miss America Organization’s official charity.

But Kaeppeler’s doesn’t start or end with a Miss America crown.

Kaeppeler’s platform during the competition was supporting and mentoring children of incarcerated parents, something Francesca Reed, a sophomore in the College of Communications and pageant participant herself, found to be wise.

“I think it’s a great choice,” Reed said. “It’s a well-known charity, and the reason why she chose it was probably close to her heart.”

Judith McMullen, a Marquette professor of law, admitted she did not know exactly what type of work Kaeppeler was doing with children of incarcerated parents. But she said it sounded like Kaeppeler was making a “contribution in an area where there are a lot of unmet needs.”

Reed began participating in pageants in seventh grade when she entered the National American Miss Illinois pageant. Reed said every pageant winner has to have some philanthropic background.

“As a winner of any pageant you have to relate to the community that you represent,” Reed said. “You are the face of your community and can help change it for the better.”

The first and only former Miss America from Wisconsin was Terry Meeuwsen in 1973, now an on-air personality for the WTMJ-TV show “A New Day” and regular participant in the TV channel’s MACCathons to fight childhood cancer.

Reed, a member of the Dorothy Day living/learning community at Marquette and a volunteer at Casa Maria in Milwaukee, said there are contestants who do philanthropy work just to add substance to their competition resume, but most of those contestants don’t win.

“It is not about who does the most philanthropy work,” Reed said. “It’s about who cares the most about their charity and is very genuine about it. The girls who do it because it is what they love to do, those are the girls who succeed in pageants.”

McMullen supports Kaeppeler’s philanthropy and said children’s positive experiences with other adults help them deal with their losses .

“When parents go away … many children — especially young children — may feel guilty and responsible,” McMullen said in an email. “Plus, once the parents are incarcerated, these children need other sources of love and nurturing in order to feel safe and secure.”

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