Four years ago Makayla Harrison didn't know if she'd walk again, let alone cross a stage in performance. Today she's not only walking, she's dancing in hopes of becoming the next Miss Napa County.
In 2002 Harrison was stricken with transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord. She slowly regained her mobility first using a walker, then two canes and finally one.
"She was determined to use her legs again," said mom Darla Harrison. Today, at 18, Makayla has regained the majority of her mobility, said her mom, and she is excited about performing her first dance routine at the final competition night. "This will be really big for her," said Darla Harrison.
The night is big for Makayla and her 11 competitors as they take the Opera House stage on Saturday with their eyes on the title of Miss Napa County.
The Miss Napa County Pageant got its start in 1961 when Lani Bunch Robertson was crowned the first winner of the scholarship pageant. In its heyday, the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) ran the show, and over the years hundreds of women have competed for the title, the crown and the financial assistance.
Miss Napa County "allowed me to finish the final semester of my senior year in college, graduate and come back to Napa where I began my teaching career at John L. Shearer School," Robertson wrote in an e-mail. "It was a marvelous time of my life."
These days, Robertson and a small group of volunteers produce the pageant.
Hopefuls must be 18 to 24 years old and live, work or attend school in Napa County. Most contestants are high school seniors or college students. Almost all said they're competing with an eye on the scholarship money and a chance at the Miss California title.
Each contestant to finishes the pageant training and competes in the final night's program receives a scholarship. The amount varies, based on fundraising, but last year each non-finalist received $600 while the top five "finalist" winners were awarded $1,200 to $4,000 scholarships, Robertson said. In total, $21,000 was distributed in 2005.
Each participant can also hit up a favorite businesses or family members for personal sponsorships, usually in the $200 range.
With the competition only weeks away, 12 Miss Napa County hopefuls recently gathered for their weekly practice. Sitting on a gym floor, the girls made posters, featuring a photo and the name of the competitor, for supporters to buy and wave during the competition.
At 21, Maggie Stewart is one of the older Miss Napa County contestants. A Napa Valley College student and Vintage Bank employee, this is Maggie's second year in the competition. In 2005 she was second runner up, and won a $1,800 scholarship.
She said she's in the competition for the scholarship, "and the experience. The training for interviews and the contacts that I've made through this program will stay with me." She hopes to transfer to Cal State Fullerton in July.
Being a sophomore competitor has its advantages, said Stewart. She knows what's not worth getting stressed about. She knows how the judges reacted to her last year — that's helped her choose her outfits and her talent this year, a comedic monologue: "A, My name is Alice."
Jacqueline Rowan, 20, attends Napa Valley College with the dream of transferring to UC Berkeley. She also works full time in Copia's membership department. Rowan's been in the Miss Napa County program three years, but hasn't cracked the top five finalist positions yet.
"The scholarship is pretty appealing," said Rowan. But that's not all she's gotten out of it. "I've noticed in my workplace I have a different attitude. I hold myself differently. The interview coaches have helped me out tremendously. The training can be used in a real job."
And she wouldn't mind winning the ultimate title. "I'm pretty sure it's every girl's dream to be Miss America," said Rowan. A Miss America scholarship would be a major benefit for the student. "I'd have no stress about paying for school," she said.
Napa High senior Kayla Goldberg said she hadn't thought about entering Miss Napa County before this year. "It was a random thing," said Goldberg. "I decided, 'I have a talent, why not?'" Goldberg hopes to win votes performing her Tae Kwon Do demonstration titled: "Listen to your Heart."
"It's kind of intimidating competing against girls who have gone through all of this (before)," she said. Still, "It's a lot of fun. It's all I ever think about. I'm proud of myself for going out and trying something new."
The competition has changed her mind about what some call "beauty pageants." "I used to think it was girly-girl. Now I think of a contestant as a sophisticated, confident woman out to make a difference," said Goldberg. "I would hope (beauty is) not all the judges are looking for."
At Sunday's practice, each contestant presented her competition ensembles for official review.
Local wedding dress designer Martha Blanchfield offered an experienced eye for fit and selection.
The review committee is looking for "Color, appropriateness, and fit," she said. Darker colors for the interview suit are most appropriate, and nothing "too sexy."
Bright colors, silky fabrics and sequins galore dominated the eveningwear fashions. Each ensemble was appraised by the volunteers; Robertson even brought her own supply of dresses for the girls to choose from.
Awaiting gown approval, Kelly Snowden, 20, modeled a glittering, hot pink halter-style evening dress she found at Ross for $40. "Sparkles are always good. They catch your eye on stage," said Snowden.
"I've borrowed every single piece," Rowan seconded.
This is Snowden's third year in the competition. She has won Most Talented awards for her Irish step dancing routine.
Volunteer Greta von Uhlit coached the young ladies at the recent practice. Asked about current event, they took turns puzzling over the answers.
"It gives girls not necessarily involved in sports a chance for scholarships," volunteer Kellie Porter said. "Most of all of these girls are overachievers. I expect these girls will be leaders."
Scholarship amounts for 2005:
Miss Napa County: $4,000
First Runner Up: $2,500
Second Runner Up: $1,800
Third Runner Up: $1,500
Fourth Runner Up: $1,200
Non-Finalist Interview: $200 + Plaque
Non-Finalist Talent: $200 + Plaque
Community Service: $200
Spirit of Competition: Plaque
Kellie Toy Memorial Scholarship: $200
D. Leilani Bunch Robertson Scholarship for Outstanding Community/Scholastic Achievement: $200
Message Pages: $50
Sponsor Scholars Awards: $2,800
Total Scholarship Awards: $21,250
Miss Napa County: Katelyn Bruce
First Runner Up: Samantha Wyman
Second Runner Up: Maggie Stewart
Third Runner Up: India Ledward
Fourth Runner Up: Jessica Johnson
Non-finalist Interview: Lucia Sanza
Non-finalist Talent: Kelly Snowden
Spirit of Competition: Katelyn Bruce & Maggie Stewart
Kellie Toy Memorial Scholarship: Jessica Johnson
D. Leilani Bunch Robertson Scholarship for Outstanding Community/Scholastic Achievement: Sarah Rutan
2006 contestants, schools
Christina Frost, Napa Valley College, Le Melange
Devyn Wagner, Vintage High School
Mayra Perez, University of California-Davis
Kayla Goldberg, Napa High School
Jacqueline Rowan, Napa Valley College
Sarah Rutan, San Jose State University
Lucia Sanza, International Sports & Science Association
Maggie Stewart, Napa Valley College
Jordan Wright, St. Mary's College of California
Tera Gallegos, St. Mary's College of California
Kelly Snowden, Napa Valley College
Makayla Harrison, Napa High School