Eryn LaLonde graduated from the University of Central Florida with her master’s in healthcare administration in May. She achieved her goal of graduating debt free thanks to the Miss America Organization.
“Through the Miss America Organization and connections I’ve made I’ve been awarded over $200,000 in scholarships,” the 24 year old said. “I haven’t touched my college savings at all and I’m debt free in school.”
LaLonde, a native of Manatee County and who currently resides in Apollo Beach is the current Miss Polk County.
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Jada Carter, 19, started her pageant career in high school when her dance instructor who was also pageant director asked for one more participant. She won Miss Mecklenburg County Outstanding Teen in 2019. She also won Miss Jacksonville (North Carolina) in 2020.
The North Carolina native is now the current Miss Winter Haven.
LaLonde and Carter are two of five contestants who won pageant titles in Polk County. None of the contestants were born or raised in Polk County. Miss Lakeland Lindsay Frranxman is from Orlando and Miss Swan City Kierra Hilts is from Pasco County. Payton Barrington was crowned Miss Florida Citrus in Winter Haven in January. All are competing in the Miss Florida Scholarship Pageant.
“The eligibility for Miss America is they either have to be a full-time resident of the state, a full-time student or work in the state full-time,” Florida executive director Keith Williams said.
Williams, 60, has volunteered with the Miss America Organization for 43 years. He says pageant hosts have a licensed agreement and can set the rules for the pageant they host. Pageants can either be open to all ladies who meet the Miss America state qualifications or pageants can have boundaries where contestants must be from the county or surrounding areas.
“That’s a decision each local competition can make,” said Williams.
Despite not being natives to Polk County the contestants have worked to make sure they have a presence in their respective areas of reign.
Carter is a computer science student at Florida A&M University and balances school and public appearances by visiting on the weekends and hosting virtual events during the week.
“Our director Brenda, who is over the whole pageant, has been very helpful with working around my school schedule since it’s not ideal for me to travel during the week because I have class,” Carter said in March. “A lot of things I will be doing over the weekend if it’s like a public appearance. Most of the things that happen during the week would have to be virtual and if I can travel I will.”
Carter’s visits allow her to push her social impact initiative #GetEngaged: Committing Girls to STEM.
“I really just wanted to get more involved with the young women who were going to go through the same experiences as me just trying to figure out what their interests are and if they wanted to pursue them,” she said.
“Knowing that there aren’t many women in STEM, there’s very low representation I just wanted to give them the opportunity to learn more about the opportunities that are available to them and realize that they if they have those interest there should be nothing stopping them from pursuing them,” she added.
Franxman, 26, says she is fortunate to represent Lakeland in the Miss Florida pageant.
“There were many counties I probably could have represented because I have a presence there due to HerSTORY, but I’m so fortunate and feel so blessed to be Miss Lakeland, especially since this is going to be my final year competing,” said Franxman “I actually aged out of the system after this year. I know it’s not a small town per se, but it’s got that small town feel and they have welcomed me with open arms.”
According to her website Franxman created HerStory to “inspire girls via stories of empowered female role models to build literacy and communication skills.” Her STORY is available in 44 Boys & Girls Clubs reaching 8,000 girls across seven counties.
“I would not have been able to get HerStory up and running, picked up and getting the recognition that it has gotten, had it not been for the skills and the confidence and the elements of the Miss America organization that empowers young women,” Franxman said.
Hilts, 19, is a political science and nursing student at Florida State University and has been competing in the Miss America Organization since she was five. She has competed in Nevada, Indiana and Florida. The Miss Swan City title is her second title in Lakeland. She was previously Miss Lakeland Outstanding Teen.
Hilts’ initiative We CAN Achieve No Kill by Chipping, Adopting, and Neutering our Pets stemmed from a project she participated in focusing on animal shelters in seventh grade.
“When I started doing that project, I immediately fell in love with being able to help animals and volunteer and get friends involved as well. And then it kind of evolved to doing fostering for animals, volunteering weekly. I do adoption events and then I hold blanket, food and toy drives for animals,” Hilts said. “I’ve been with this initiative since I was around 12 or 13 years old. But I really honestly have been involved with animals since I was really young because of my mom.”
Barrington, 25, has previously held titles as Miss Pasco County, Miss Largo and Miss Pinellas County.
“I was grateful to have those titles because they were sort of in the Tampa area and that’s where I was going to school,” Barrington said. “So, I was able to go to appearances there during the school year because I was close and I was able to find that connection that way.”
Barrington’s duty is to represent the citrus industry and she has visited places such as Winter Haven, Bartow and Vero Beach to expand her knowledge and make connections.
“Since I am Miss Florida Citrus and the pageant was held in Winter Haven, I didn’t have such strong ties to the area,” she said. “But I have been diving headfirst into Winter Haven and the Citrus industry. With this title I have grown to have such a huge appreciation for the citrus industry and agriculture as a whole.”
Barrington works as an intensive care unit nurse. Her role in her health care influenced her social impact initiative Save a heart: Fighting against heart disease.
“I started out on a cardiac neuro progressive care unit. I realized that a lot of my patients were suffering from different forms of heart disease,” Barrington said. “And then I also have family members who have suffered from heart disease as well. So that runs in my family.”
Barrington says the ultimate catalyst for her initiative was the unexpected death of her mentor and singing coach. Her mentor de ella did not know she had any history of heart disease and died of a heart attack.
“I just felt like there was a gap in education for heart health and living a heart healthy lifestyle. And not many people know that heart disease is the number one cause of death,” Barrington said. “So, I made it my mission to educate the public, especially educating women on the dangers of heart disease and how they can implement heart healthy tips and tricks into their life so that they can live a long life.”
LaLonde chose to use her social impact to pay it forward by creating Operation Success: Planning and Paying for Higher Education. According to LaLonde, in 2021 there was $98.1 billion taken out in student loan debt in Florida and yet in Southwest Florida there were over $4 billion dollars unawarded in scholarships.
“I help students apply to and obtain scholarships that are readily available to them. Since March of last year, I’ve helped students be awarded $43,000 in scholarships,” LaLonde said.
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The Manatee County native is no stranger to Polk County.
“I’ve done a lot of work for Florida Baptist Children Home since 8th grade, so I was always in Lakeland a lot,” said LaLonde. “I know the area. I know the people there.”
“I love Polk County. It reminds me of Manatee County, where I grew up. Very small business oriented, everyone’s connected, everyone wants to support each other. I have nothing bad to say about Polk County,” she added.
The Miss America Organization is listed as a 501(c)(4) , and the Miss America Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization. According to the Miss America website they share the common mission of using the Miss America platform to identify deserving candidates and award academic scholarships to young women throughout the United States.
“Miss America Organization is the largest scholarship provider for young women in America,” Williams said.
There are 33 Miss titles competing to win the Miss Florida title and $18,000. Preliminaries began Wednesday and ended Thursday. The Prince and Princess Talent Show is Saturday at 9 am The Miss Florida Outstanding Teen Finals are Saturday at 3 pm and the Miss Florida Finals are at 7 pm
Tickets for Saturday are $103 with the competitions held at the RP Funding Center at 701 W Lime Street.
Breanna A. Rittman writes news features for The Ledger. Send your feature ideas to [email protected]