The hairdos and dress styles may have changed, but young women have been competing to become Miss Napa County or Napa County’s Junior Miss for more than 30 years. However, lately the future of those titles hasn’t always been so certain.
A bad economy, lack of sponsorships, and volunteer and leadership turnover have caused the two programs to falter.
Now, a new group of supporters has stepped up to the stage with hopes of reviving the longtime traditions.
Sarah Rutan is the new executive director of the Miss Napa County organization. But Rutan’s no stranger to the program. She won the 2008 Miss Napa County title, along with its crown and $4,600 in scholarship funds.
“I owe my whole college education to the program,” Rutan said. The first year she competed as Miss Napa County, “I walked away with $1,027 — just for participating. I remember it down to the dollar; it meant so much to me to be awarded that,” she said. Over the four years she participated in the program, “I won more than $10,000 in scholarships,” Rutan said.
During those years, longtime pageant executive director Lani Bunch Robertson and a dedicated group of volunteers had built the competition into a powerhouse preliminary event to Miss California.
Bunch Robertson could not be interviewed for this story, but her husband, Barry Robertson, recalled the kind of program his wife produced.
“Under her guidance as executive director, she brought the program into prominence through the state as one of the premier local pageants and in terms of scholarship dollars,” Robertson said. Bunch Robertson, herself Miss Napa County 1961, turned the crowning into a gala spectacular, he recalled.
More than $20,000 in scholarship money was typically raised and awarded to 12 to 15 contestants who made the final cut for the program, Rutan said. But after Bunch Robertson retired, the program faltered.
Volunteers came and went, and with the economy in a tailspin, the amount of funds raised plunged. In 2011, the program could only afford to award $500 to the winner of Miss Napa County, and $100 to each of the six participants. The show had to be combined with a Miss Solano competition. Miss Napa County was crowned in Vacaville last year.
This year, Rutan has been able to assume the role of executive director for the program. Still recovering from the leadership transition, the event will be held in conjunction with Miss Solano again, but Rutan is determined to restore luster to the title.
“It’s very important to me. I love everything it teaches the girls,” she said. “I’ll never let it die.”
Rutan said Bunch Robertson inspired her to keep the pageant going. “She had done so much for me when I was a contestant,” Rutan said. “I grew so much through the system,” learning interview, presentation and public speaking skills.
“It was important for me to give back to the program and carry on something that meant the world to her.”
Rutan has her work cut out for her. This year, 10 girls have begun meeting for the competition. Sponsors need to be found to award scholarships to the participants. “We make sure that every contestant walks away with some kind of scholarship, no matter how much,” Rutan said. “Even if it’s $100.”
Is the program still relevant to today’s young women?
Yes, Rutan said. “I see the excitement in the girls,” she said — and not just about the money. “They are excited to see how involved they can become. They are able to promote their platforms and make a difference in the community.”
Local high school juniors have participated in the Napa Valley Junior Miss program since 1975. But after the most recent chairperson stepped down, the future of another local scholarship program (renamed America’s Distinguished Young Women in 2010) hung in the balance.
After a public plea in December for help, Christa Gonzales, a longtime production chair and choreographer of the event, stepped forward and assumed the leadership role.
“I felt like I had to,” said Gonzales, who competed in Junior Miss in 1997. “I didn’t want to see it fall apart or not continue.”
Gonzales faces the same challenges Rutan does. “I’m trying to make sure I have enough volunteers and delegate the jobs,” Gonzales said. Recruiting for the upcoming competition has just begun, she said. “So far, I estimate 10 (juniors) are already interested. I’m sure it will grow.”
Finding sponsors for the program has been hard, Gonzales said. A recent letter to the editor in the Register generated some interest, but more donations are needed, along with a volunteer to help manage that process, Gonzales said.
In addition to the Distinguished Young Woman medallion the winner receives, the program also includes multiple scholarships — in some years as high as $3,500.
“The more sponsors we get, the more money we get for the girls,” she said. “You don’t want anybody to walk away empty-handed.”
In 2011, a total of $6,650 in scholarships was awarded, compared to $10,500 for the 2008 winner. “This year it’s my responsibility to build up the program again,” Gonzales said.
Is the program still relevant to today’s high school juniors?
“I would say it is,” Gonzales said. “There are a lot of pressures out there for girls. We try to send a positive message that every girl is beautiful inside and out.
“It’s not a beauty pageant,” she said. “The girls grow from the program. They learn interview, essay-writing skills (and) they learn to work together as a group.”