A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, April 29, 2012

You Go, Girl!

I've been writing this column for 27 years, and in all this time I have never endorsed a candidate.
Until now, that is. Today I'm breaking my streak and asking you to vote for the candidate of my choice.
Who is it? Sheena Monnin, Miss Pennsylvania USA, who will be competing for the Miss USA title in Las Vegas on June 3.
I know some people take a dim view of beauty pageants, but once you get to know Sheena, she'll blow all your preconceptions out of the water.
She's smart, funny and focused; and she has a huge, huge heart. She isn't pushing a political agenda, she doesn't hate anyone, and she doesn't want to be a movie star.
Her ideal isn't Kim Kardashian; it's Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."
Sheena has a B.A. in human services and a Master's in psychology, and her next step is a PhD in theology. She's also a certified etiquette instructor, with certification in corporate etiquette and international protocol.
For years, her goal has been to found a school for at-risk girls called Pemberly (which Austen fans will recognize as Mr. Darcy's estate in "Pride and Prejudice").
Now she has another one: To counsel people of all ages, ethnicities and religions on a deeper, more sensitive and comprehensive level – especially children.
For the last ten years she's been teaching little kids etiquette, and I don't mean which fork to use.
"Etiquette is learning about respect," she says. "Showing respect to others through our actions is empowering and increases our own level of self-respect."
I could go on and tell you about the hours she spends with a charity called Christmas Child, stuffing shoeboxes with pencils, notebooks, toys and other goodies for kids who otherwise wouldn't have a Christmas.
Or how she uses her celebrity to raise funds for Bethlehem Haven, a shelter for homeless women in Pittsburgh.
But what impresses me most is not what she does, it's the way she does it. She's one of those rare people who, when they're talking with someone, are totally in the moment.
Especially when she's talking with children. She tunes out of the rest of the world and does nothing but listen to them with every fiber of her being.
Now, put yourself in the place of one of those little girls. Here's this beautiful older woman – she's only 27, but to a little kid that must seem ancient - wearing a crown and a big sash reading, "Miss Pennsylvania USA," and she's listening to you as if you're the most important person in the world.
She looks like a princess, but what she's really saying to you is "No, YOU are the princess. And you can be anything and do anything you want."
And the look on their little faces is just priceless. Talk about empowerment!
Check them out on Sheena's Facebook page, "Miss Pennsylvania USA." You'll find yourself being charmed in spite of yourself.
Then please vote for her at either www.missusa.com or www.nbc.com.
And if, after all this, you still take a dim view of beauty pageants, she won't mind.
"When I meet someone who doesn't like pageants, that's OK," she says. "There are lots of other areas where we can find common ground and make a genuine connection."
Online balloting starts May 1.