On the Road with Miss America 2003 Erika Harold
When she left Illinois, her friends and family had great hope for her prospects in Atlantic City. Little did they know, though, that, upon her return, she would be escorted by so many policemen, security guards, and press representatives that their time with her would become a rare treasure. When she left, they had no idea that she would soon be holding court with kings in Belgium, the heads of every major violence prevention group in the USA, and even be singing at her homecoming. She went to Atlantic City as Erika Harold. Now, she was coming back home as Miss America 2003.
But Erika's whole reason-for-being is to reach out to people from all walks of life. "I want my legacy to be one that reaches young people across the country, who have lost hope for any reason, to now believe that there is a reason to stay alive, to keep dreaming, and to keep persevering," she would say.
As she made appearances in the familiar environs of Chicago suburb Oakbrook Terrace, home of the Miss Illinois Program, she obviously valued her time with the hundreds of family and friends on hand for her homecoming. These intimate meetings, perhaps more than her more notable public appearances on such TV programs as Late Night With David Letterman, Good Morning America, and FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor, brought her great personal satisfaction. "Part of the joy of winning something like this," she said, "is celebrating it with everyone who knew you when you were a nobody."
Homecoming activities kicked off with a press conference on Wednesday, Oct. 9, in Oakbrook Terrace. There, Erika addressed the dozens of radio, print, and TV reporters from all the major affiliates. She also received a bouquet of flowers and a key to the city from Mayor Tom Mazaika. Mazaika unveiled a sign that read, "Miss America Way, Erika Harold." The sign would soon grace a street in Oakbrook Terrace.
Erika then passed the baton of Miss Illinois to 22-year-old Michelle LaGroue, who put off a move to New York City and a Broadway career in order to take over the Miss Illinois title.
With this event, the scene was set for Wednesday evening's grand homecoming gala. Hundreds of volunteers, sponsors, and mentors to Erika were honored. Fran Skinner-Lewis, executive director of the Miss Illinois Organization, invited each honoree onstage to receive a plaque featuring a photo of Erika's crowning and an inscription that read: "With Special Thanks, Miss America 2003 Erika Harold." Dozens of students attended, a small representation of the 14,000 across America to whom she had already spoken even before receiving the Miss America crown. The students stopped the show more than once with their loud cheers.
The following evening brought a show at downtown Chicago's Hard Rock Cafe, which included performances by the Chicago Children's Choir and Raffles van Exel, who also emceed. Guests also heard Miss Illinois and the Miss America Top 5. After each of their individual performances, the titleholders (Miss Indiana Tangra Riggle, Miss Michigan Erin Moss, Miss Illinois Michelle LaGroue, Miss NE Suburbs Deanna Riddle, Miss Maryland Camille Lewis, Miss Nevada Teresa Benitez, Miss Oklahoma Casey Preslar, Miss Alabama Scarlotte Deupree, and Erika) had a special surprise a group performance of the song "RESPECT," led by Tangra. The titleholders also were available for photos and autographs.
But theirs wasn't only a "stage act" on this homecoming week; Erika and the other titleholders spent two days visiting suburban Chicago schools. Also, on Friday evening they joined friends and volunteers of the Miss Illinois Program cruising Lake Michigan on the luxury ship "Odyssey."
On Saturday, the entourage traveled, caravan-style, downstate to Erika's hometown, Urbana, where Erika was a special guest at her alma mater, the University of Illinois. The day started with a breakfast at U of I President James Stukel's home. Later in the day, Erika performed the national anthem to kick off the football game at U of I's Memorial Stadium. She enjoyed watching the game and meeting fans throughout the day, and was also trailed by a reporter and photographer from People magazine. The day ended, appropriately, with a win for U of I!
The final homecoming event of the week was a dinner and show at Champaign's Hawthorne Suites. Erika was available for photos with family and friends before dinner, and spent extra time at the event so she could greet each of the 450 attendees. During the show, Fran Skinner-Lewis announced that the state of Illinois had declared it "Erika Harold Day," and she presented a proclamation to Erika. During the event, Erika performed the hymn "How Beautiful" to a rapt audience, and she acknowledged many people in the room whom she said had a hand in helping her grow.
"[The event]... made me realize how many people played a role in my life and believed in me even when I wasn't Miss Anything," Erika said. "They were there in church, they were there in school, and I'm just gratified."
Miss Illinois Michelle LaGroue performed an original song called "Home," which she dedicated to Erika. The song had been written for a musical by Michelle's mother, who was herself a past runner-up to Miss Iowa. Later, Erika personally thanked Michelle, and the two discussed issues within the violence-prevention platform they shared.
Late that evening, after each guest had left, Erika sat down with emcee Stevie Jay Khachaturian of WDWS-AM radio for an interview to be aired on his broadcast. Khachaturian told Erika that it was an honor to be a part of the event. "I'm also glad to honor a kid that's so smart, and stands up for what she believes in," said Khachaturian. "I think that's why people have caught on to �Erika Harold.' You're not just pretty, you're smart, and you have integrity, and I want to be on your ticket when you run for president!"
Leaving kidding aside, Khachaturian noted that our current president has said that the power of prayer "lifts him." He wondered if Erika felt the same way. "I certainly do," Erika said, "because if you are in a role where you are trying to be a role model for others, really the only thing that can keep you going day-to-day is to know that there is someone larger than you... And I just pray every day that God grants me that wisdom so I can make a difference."
Khachaturian explained that he would be reporting on Erika's Miss America activities every Friday. As he pondered a year of such updates, he noted that the job of Miss America can be an exhausting one. Khachaturian asked Erika if she thought she would tire of the job. "I don't think so," she said. "I've waited my entire life to have a stage to be able to share things I think are important. I realize I have only one year to do that, so I don't want to waste any opportunity."
To view hundreds of homecoming photos and to see news links from Erika's homecoming, log on to http://www.missil.org.
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