Miss Universe 2015

by: Alicia M. Blanco

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I will never forget this past weekend attending the Miss Universe 2015 pageant in Doral, Miami. It was seriously so much fun watching not one, but TWO of my friends compete!! One of my very best friends Nia Sanchez (Miss USA 2014) nearly won the whole thing placing 1st runner up! It was incredible to watch her on stage that night and it has been even more incredible watching her in her overall journey.

Here are 3 things I’ve learned through my dear friend Nia over the years:

1.) Never give up! – Nia never gave up on her dream to go to Miss USA. As a result, she ended up on the stage at Miss Universe! Imagine if she had quit with the first “not yet” she received or surrendered to any discouragement that came her way.

It was a long road but Nia never lost her hope, joy, optimism or faith. In fact, those traits of hers seemed to only magnify and increase with each closed door. This is why it feels so damn good to see her kicking major butt in life these days!  She allowed any and all backlash, “haterade” and tough times that came her way in pageant land to serve and prepare her for her future.  Every disappointment she encountered ended up fueling and motivating her, increasing her confidence profoundly, and sharpening her into the poised, sophisticated and timeless beauty we now call our Miss USA 2014. She’s such a boss…

Chelsea Caswell celebrates with Nia on stage at the Miss Nevada USA 2014 pageant moments after Nia is announced as her successor.

Chelsea Caswell celebrates with Nia on stage at the Miss Nevada USA 2014 pageant moments after Nia is announced as her successor.

The night Nia was crowned as Miss Nevada USA 2014! It was only the beginning!

The night Nia was crowned as Miss Nevada USA 2014! It was only the beginning!

When my girlfriends and I sat in the audience on the night she was crowned Miss Nevada USA, it was tears galore. So many emotions were overflowing that night and I’ll never forget the look on her face when we all ran onto the stage to hug her. Deep in my heart, I knew it was only the beginning for her. Great things happen for people who persevere through all the doubts, insecurities, obstacles and naysayers.

Months later she stole the show at the Miss USA pageant in Baton Rouge and was crowned as our Miss USA 2014!! I could try explaining how intense and emotional that night was to watch, but this video says it all. (Note: It was just like this at Miss Universe. We are such an emotional group of girls lol)

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2.) Always be thankful and humble/ Never change – So just to recap: Nia won Miss Nevada USA in January 2014, won Miss USA in June 2014, got engaged to the love of her life Daniel Booko in October 2014 and placed first runner up at Miss Universe in January 2015.  As Miss USA, Nia has such an insanely busy schedule, especially in preparing for the Miss Universe pageant. On top of all the pageant prep, she also has a schedule jam-packed with photo shoots, appearances, charity events and so much more. Despite all the cameras flashing and opportunities coming her way, Nia has remained just as humble as ever. She’s still the same Nia I met years ago. She’s still incredibly thoughtful and sincere and puts so much effort into making others feel happy.

Immediately after the Miss Universe pageant, Nia wanted to go out to eat at BJ’s Brewhouse (priorities people!!), but unfortunately it closed at midnight. When we got there five minutes before they closed, the restaurant welcomed Nia and her friends and family in for an additional two hours after closing to the public. Nia was so thankful of course, that despite being incredibly tired, I found her sitting in a booth signing autographs and thank you notes to the entire staff who stayed late to serve us- and that’s the type of girl Nia is: humble and gracious. This was only an hour or so after coming off a nationally televised pageant where she was front and center! Yet, there she was, thinking of others and wanting to make people happy. I will never forget that about her. She hasn’t let the attention and glamour change her heart.  She’s a real inner beauty queen!

Post pageant pazookie!

Post pageant pazookie!

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Julia Dalton, me, Anastagia Pierre Friel, Alyssa Campanella, Nia Sanchez, Claire Schreiner, Meagan Tandy, Kristen Dalton after Miss Universe

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Nia aced every portion of the competition. She was flawless. Truly glowing from the inside out!

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3.) Trust in God’s timing. – When I think of Nia, I think of the scripture Esther 4:14 “And who knows but that you have come into your royal position for such a time as this?” Nia literally waited and waited until it was finally her turn to come into her position as a titleholder. The timing was so perfect because look at all that’s happened in her life under HIS timing. It’s stunning! Sometimes in life we think we know what’s best for us. We want what we want and we want it right away. When we don’t get the things we want in our timing, we grow weary and frustrated. I’ve learned to trust in God’s timing over my own because His plans for me are so much bigger and better than my own hopes and dreams. God clearly had a major plan in his timing for Nia’s amazing journey and it really taught me to fully surrender to God’s timing with all my heart.

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This is why when Nia wasn’t crowned as Miss Universe on Sunday night, we knew it was setting her up for something even bigger. “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12– and that’s the kind of crown a girl like Nia fights for every day.

Congratulations Nia Sanchez, Miss USA 2014 and 1RU Miss Universe! Your reign as a titleholder may only last for a year, but the legacy you are creating and leaving behind will last forever and ever.  And THAT is what I call a QUEEN.

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Finding Beauty in the Pain

by: Cierra Jackson

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“Consider it PURE JOY, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James1:2-4

“Really Jesus?! You demand me to deviate from anything other than joy as I sit in the emergency room screaming at the top of my lungs in excruciating pain?   You require me to ‘rejoice in your name ALWAYS?’ Even in the midst of my torment?”

There is no doubt that I have had an extraordinary life full of God’s favor;  this thought has crossed my mind on a weekly basis since I was an adolescent.  As I reflect on my life, I am overwhelmed with the amount of challenges I have faced; anguish, hopelessness, worry, fear, depression, loneliness.  Although there are a multitude of experiences that left me feeling forsaken by God, the center of every problem has always been illness/sickness.

I was born with Sickle Cell Disease, a blood disorder in which red blood cells are crescent shaped.  Due to the lack of oxygenation and the ‘sickle’ shape of my cells; they get caught in my veins and organs which causes ‘crisis’ (agonizing pain.)  These pain crisis’ are usually very erratic and can sneak up at any moment.  My entire life has been surrounded and interrupted by these pain episodes.  My eyes would often times be extremely jaundice and while in elementary school the kids called me ‘green-eyed gremlin’ Not only did I have to endure teasing for the way I looked on the outside at times; but I was constantly missing school due to frequent hospitalizations.  Life with Sickle Cell was burdensome and there was nothing more I wanted in life except to be rid of this horrible awful disease.

Now I could tell story after story about the many times I have pleaded with God to take this pain away.  Everyday for four years I have ingested a chemotherapy drug that has slowed down the hospitalizations and damaging effects of the SCD, however January 2014 I hit a wall and began experiencing life threatening side effects from the drug.  After many conferences with my medical team we decided that Bone Marrow Transplantation would be the best option for me.  Between January and April the psychological preparation began for me to enter the hospital for 3-4 months to undergo 17 rounds of chemotherapy to kill my marrow and to give me a new marrow that would produce healthy cells.  The doctors explained that during this process I would develop mouth sores, various forms of GVH (the body rejecting the marrow), infertility, skin discoloration, and many other problems that could occur.   It was finally April 8, the day of check in; and my mom and I held our breath as I signed the admission papers to my new temporary home.  I was terrified of what the outcome would be but I was also elated.  This was the game changer, THE pivotal moment of my life. “Yes Lord, I am finally going to be FREE from pain, I will get this transplant and receive that clean bill of health in 5 years.”  (One isn’t declared healed until 5 years post transplant)

On this day, I went into surgery, the doctors placed the Hickman catheter in my chest and then I went to receive an exchange transfusion (when 80% of my own blood is taken out and replaced with new blood.)  As I was having blood pumped out of my body, the team of doctors, nurses, and social workers walked in and said, “Cierra, we are so sorry, but there seems to be some problems with the insurance company and you will not be receiving the transplant at this time.” I WAS DEVASTATED.  Here I was with no home because I moved out of my apartment, no job because I took an extended leave of absence, and now NO TRANSPLANT after 4 months of emotional/physical/spiritual preparation.  How was I going to explain this to all my family and friends?  My family in Texas and Illinois was preparing to come to LA to help my mom, individuals from every corner of my life had gathered to wish me well and I felt like a fool.

“JESUS ARE YOU KIDDING?  Did I really just spend 4 months of my life preparing for a period of hell to get rid of my existing hell? Is this really happening to me?  God, these doctors have already cut me open, and taken me through the emotional roller coaster of this transplant.  This is definitely some sort of sick twisted disgusting joke.”

I could go on and on and on about the 26 years of pain that I have endured because of this Sickle Cell. I could tell you how I took Benadryl everyday to sleep the days away after this happened.   It was horrible, it was embarrassing, and it was a hopeless situation. My heart physically hurt; it felt like someone ripped it out and squeezed it to death.  My body was alive yet lifeless…I couldn’t breathe…I couldn’t think…all I could do was cry…literally.  I sobbed day and night.  This hurt…this was the ultimate rejection…the grand scheme the enemy planted in my mind to further propel my insecurities, inadequacy, and unworthiness.  I felt like I was back at square one, back to worrying about the quality of my life.

After a month or two of self-sabotage I decided it was time to get help.  I had allowed over a decade of problems accumulate in my life and the transplant situation exacerbated everything else.  Working with a therapist significantly helped, however, it wasn’t until I began to go back to my roots with Jesus is when I began to truly heal.  One of my favorite singers, Vicki Yohe, has a song entitled “In the Waiting.”  The very first line of that song is “Pain, the gift nobody longs for still it comes.”  I have been listening to that song since I was fourteen years old but one day as I was in my room listening to that song I broke down weeping.  I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit and suddenly I understood.

 “Cierra, PAIN IS YOUR GIFT.  Sickness is not of me, but I have allowed you to go through these things because this is how you will touch others.  As you continue to live your life, individuals will see the ‘handicaps’ and the ‘roadblocks’ and they will wonder how in the world you do what you do with what you have.  And the answer won’t have anything to do with you but EVERYTHING to do with me.”

The only way that that I get through life now is to know that pain is a gift from the Lord.  It absolutely sucks when we are being beaten down by the hardships of this world but the only way to surpass it is to know that Christ is using these things to strengthen you.  It is way too easy to love Him when things are going great.  It is simple to walk around joyfully serving others when you have complete health, dependable family members, loyal friends, success, popularity, and money in the bank.

C.S Lewis, a great author said, “We can ignore even pleasure.  But pain insists upon being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Growing up I always heard my mom and elders in the church reiterate that our problems are not for ourselves; that they are for someone else’s benefit.  That always sounded religious and kind of dumb to me.  It irritated me that others would validate my suffering for someone else.  In the last ten months I have finally stopped praying “Why God?” “Please take this away God.”  Instead my prayer is “How do you want me to use this to benefit you Lord” “What do you need me to do Jesus?”  When I ‘face trials of many kinds’ I truly have JOY, because I know that God is working.  I know that He will NEVER give me more than I can bear and I appreciate that He trusts ME to do the work. So I stopped praying for the pain to go away.

Perhaps you’re depressed, perhaps your mom and dad have abandoned you, perhaps you have cancer, or maybe you keep facing rejection in your career…all of these things cause pain.  BUT how will you use your turmoil to help someone else?  Your pain and your heartache will be the leverage God gives you to help someone.  Sometimes He even allows you to go through things just to prove to you how much He loves you and how much others value you.  I have not arrived, but I am so excited for the doors God has been opening and I know that the ‘seemingly grievous times’ are BLESSINGS.  I take PURE JOY in the struggles because I know those overlooked gifts will bring the most value to God’s kingdom.

I compete for the title of Miss California USA this upcoming weekend. I cannot wait to stand  on that stage and showcase inner beauty and resiliance. i feel so beautiful on the inside after overcoming so much with my health, and that’s what I hope people see in me.