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Pageants about ‘more than just looks’ for teen

BY EDIE GROSS

THE FREE LANCE-STAR

Sophia Ramsel has a personal beef with multiple sclerosis.

For years, the Stafford teen has watched her best friend’s mother battle the debilitating disease.

Recently crowned Miss Junior Teen Virginia United States, Sophia, 16, hopes to use her title to advance support for MS research.

She plans to make that case to a large crowd Saturday, April 28 when she speaks at Walk MS: Fredericksburg.

“I want to encourage them to be the legs for those who can’t move,” said Sophia, who called her best friend’s mother a role model. “Throughout the years, I’ve watched her struggle with it. She’s been such an inspiration and a mother figure in my life.”

The event, which raised about $55,000 last year, starts at 8:30 a.m. at James Monroe High School.

Organizers are hoping to have about 500 people participate in the walk, which passes through downtown Fredericksburg, said Tiffany Epley, development manager with the Central Virginia Chapter of the National MS Society.

“It’s one of our favorite walks because we love the downtown area,” said Epley. “It’s just a nice day to hang out with people you’re connected to. Everybody’s connected to the cause.”

‘MORE THAN JUST LOOKS’

Sophia’s connection to MS started in the sixth grade when she met her best friend. It wasn’t until recently, however, that she began competing in pageants and making MS her platform.

The oldest of six children, Sophia is the daughter of Shon Ramsel and Gillian Chandler. She was born in Memphis but raised largely in Virginia.

Her family spent a few months in Alabama last year, and that’s where friends first talked her into trying pageant life.

She says she shook uncontrollably the first time she crossed a stage. She must’ve done it gracefully, because the judges awarded her third place.

“As soon as we got back here, I was on the hunt for pageants in Virginia,” she said.

She continued to place well, and in the fall she was crowned Teen Miss Spotsylvania Regency.

After winning the local title, she volunteered to speak at Walk MS: Fredericksburg. Then, in April, she won the state title.

She’ll compete for Miss Junior Teen United States at the national pageant in Washington in July. In the meantime, she plans to talk to students—and anyone else who will listen—about MS, bullying and the importance of having self-confidence.

“It’s been a huge, life-changing experience,” she said. “It’s opened up so many new possibilities.”

Her father said he likes the fact that the pageants instill a public-service commitment in the teens.

“I see these girls really develop a sense of purpose. It’s more than just looks,” he said. “What it’s about is doing more for the community than just being a pretty little girl up on a stage.”

INSPIRED BY OTHERS

Sophia is in the pre-International Baccalaureate program at Mountain View High School, where she’s a sophomore. She transferred there from Stafford High partway through the year, so she had to sit out her favorite sports: cross country, volleyball, track and basketball.

Pageants and speaking engagements have kept her plenty busy, she said. Her father chauffeurs her most places, sometimes with a gaggle of Sophia’s siblings: Zoë, 13; Sullivan, 9; Julie, 7; Lucy, 5; and Jack, 2.

Sophia’s parents are supportive of her efforts, but they insist that she cover her own pageant expenses. She scours consignment shops and pageant resales for reasonably priced dresses.

And rather than hire a coach like some competitors, she relies on advice from her friends and YouTube videos. Her father, who used to model, even taught her how to glide gracefully across the stage in an evening gown.

She also earns money doing part-time modeling, helping out at Petite Priss spa parties for little girls and selling dresses at Formal Envy in Fredericksburg.

“We just think she’s wonderful. She’s very mature for her age, and she’s accepted a lot of responsibility,” said Formal Envy co-owner Ann Moody. “She’s the all-American girl. How can you not like her? That’s the way I look at it.”

Sophia said the competitions have increased her self-confidence and improved her public speaking skills. Plus, she’s gotten to meet so many wonderful people she otherwise might never have encountered.

“My goal was to inspire people. In reality, they’re inspiring me. It’s amazing the people I’ve met,” she said, adding that her best friend’s mother has been one of the most inspiring.

“She has raised two beautiful daughters, and though she’s lost a lot of mobility, continues to keep a smile on her face,” she said. “It’s amazing the things she does every day.”

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428

egross@freelancestar.com

WANT TO GO?

Walk MS: Fredericksburg takes place Saturday, April 28, at James Monroe High School, 2300 Washington Ave. in Fredericksburg. Check-in and registration for the event, which includes a Pooch Parade, starts at 8:30 a.m., and the walk begins at 10 a.m.

Walking routes—there are a 1-mile option and a 3-miler—wind through downtown Fredericksburg and end back at the school with food and entertainment.

For more information, visit  IwalkforMS.org and click on the “Fredericksburg” button.

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