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A brush with royalty

Miss Va. promotes healthy lifestyles
Miss Virginia 2012 Rosemary Willis with Henrico North Rotary Club member Harvey Hinson

The Henrico North Rotary entertained visiting royalty Nov. 28 at The Westwood Club, and in turn, members were entertained and enlightened by the current Miss Virginia. What’s more, they got a surprise bonus: a chance to hear her comeback story.

To look at 21-year-old Rosemary Willis, one would never guess she is recovering from serious physical adversity. Attractive and athletic, she began dance lessons at the age of two and went on to play sports ranging from soccer and field hockey to gymnastics.

But in her senior year of high school, she suffered a boating accident that resulted in loss of consciousness and her third major concussion. The outcome of the injury was characterized as “minor” brain damage, including swelling of the brain, short-term memory loss, and problems with balance, hearing, cognitive skills and the ability to run.

The effect on Willis’ lifestyle, however, was anything but minor.

“The neurologist prescribed rest and no rigorous cardio training for at least a year,” she told Rotary members. “That was devastating news for an athlete who was on sports teams since the age of three. Playing soccer and field hockey were part of my identity, and that was now taken away from me.”

Because her recovery entailed a new sedentary lifestyle, she began to gain weight, and struggled with her self-esteem and an eating disorder. Coupled with her learning difficulties (“I could sit down and read a book and never remember that I read the book”) and the onset of her freshman year of college, the physical and emotional frustration sent her into a tailspin.

“I was already feeling insecure from my injury,” Willis said, “and I was ashamed to struggle with yet another obstacle that made me abnormal and took me further away from the happy, outgoing girl who was in love with life.”

Transformations
With the help of counseling sessions, Willis eventually came to understand the role that sports had played in her self-concept, and found ways to replace soccer and hockey with new activities.

“It was exercise and self-respect that was missing from my life,” she told her audience. “I started weight lifting and doing yoga – things that wouldn’t exacerbate the injury.” She also began logging her food intake and improving the quality of her meals, and set achievable goals of finding one small thing to accomplish each day.

Little by little, her confidence and strength returned, and the experience became a catalyst for the discovery of her passion: educating others about the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

“They say when you lose something you learn to appreciate it,” Willis said. “I recognized that I loved being active because of the way it makes me feel and think positively about myself, [and] I became a fitness instructor and trainer to share my newfound joy for exercise with others.”

So when it came to time to choose her platform for the Miss Virginia competition, Willis said, the topic was a “no brainer.”

Since adopting her platform, “Get Moving Today for a Healthier Tomorrow,” and becoming Miss Virginia, Willis has traveled 25,000 miles, reached 10,000 students in 10 schools (where she has taken over P.E. classes to teach yoga and kickboxing), and spoken to more than 20 civic clubs on the topic. She also has met with officials from municipal governments and Parks and Recreation Boards about creating more anti-obesity programs for children, and shared her enthusiasm for exercise at camps in Ukraine, Africa, Costa Rica, and Haiti.

Her passion has also moved her to volunteer at summer sports camps in Virginia, Tennessee, New York, and in Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina victims. While at the College of William and Mary (she is on hiatus while serving her term as Miss Virginia) she volunteered for a non-profit, Campus Kitchens, as a recreation leader, teaching group fitness classes and serving as a personal trainer for senior adults, disabled adults, and obese children.

One of her favorite success stories regarding the positive effects of exercise stars a boy named Dante, who participated in a program she led in Newport News.

“Dante came in down on himself,” said Willis. “He had a bad attitude, low self-confidence, little cardiovascular endurance and he was struggling in school. He could only walk 10 minutes without getting winded.” But by the end of the four-month program, she said, Dante was planning to try out for his school football team, and had brought his parents to the sessions to learn how to read food labels and provide healthier options at home.

Service above self
In a question-and-answer session following her presentation to the Rotarians, Willis also answered questions about her talent (singing), siblings (two older brothers, whom she jokingly calls her “pageant team”), and her college major (government, with a minor in kinesiology and health sciences).

But probably the most common question Willis gets – aside from “How do you keep your crown on?” – is “Did you grow up doing pageants?”

Not at all, answered Willis, a Chesapeake native. Competing never entered her mind until her freshman year of college, when a friend suggested that she enter a local Miss America pageant as a means of winning scholarship money.

Willis – who described herself as something of a tomboy growing up -- said her initial response was to laugh. “I don’t even know how to put on makeup, or wear high heels!” she recalled saying at the time.

“But two years later, here I am,” she told the Rotarians. “I guess I clean up pretty nice.”

Anxious to dispel stereotypical ideas about pageants – which she said most people acquire from popular TV shows such as Toddlers and Tiaras – Willis explained that the Miss America organization is the largest scholarship provider for women in the world. Now that she has personally earned $21,000 in scholarships, Willis remarked, “My parents are really excited -- they don’t have to pay for my senior year!”

But more importantly, she said, her role as Miss Virginia has provided the opportunity be a role model, and to become more engaged in community service – service that she said is “[what] makes the world go ‘round. [It] cultivates a society that is about the ‘other” and not the self, in a world that seems to be increasingly more about immediate self-indulgence and satisfaction. . .

“That’s something I can relate to Rotary,” Willis added, “since your motto is ‘Service above self.’”

As Miss Virginia, Willis also has the opportunity to promote Miss America’s national platform (Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals) as Virginia’s statewide ambassador, and to pursue her goal of helping to save an at-risk generation of children from the negative effects of unhealthy lifestyles.

For the first time, she pointed out, members of the upcoming generation may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents due to these “convenience-based, fast-paced” lifestyles.

“Families aren’t taking the time to sit down for a meal, or go for a walk, and kids are spending an average of six hours a day on media,” said Willis, noting that schools – which in recent years have been cutting rather than adding time for recess and physical education – cannot take up the slack.

Yet studies show that that academic success and physical activity go hand-in-hand, and that healthy active students have a higher graduation rate, partly as a result of chemicals released in the brain during exercise.

Pointing out that money and transportation often pose tremendous barriers to children who want to participate in after-school sports, she encouraged Rotarians to consider projects such as sponsoring field days or paying for a school basketball team’s registration fees.

Seeing change first-hand
As she prepares for the Miss America pageant in January, Willis said she is maintaining a busy schedule of travel and official appearances along with her workouts, interview coaching and voice lessons.

But whether or not she goes on to greater fame as Miss America, she has her career goal – working with a non-profit organization that promotes health and wellness in the community and schools – nailed down. And she is the first to admit that she can thank her “lucky” accident for that.

“We all have excuses and barriers to exercise . . . and to achieve [our] best selves,” she said. “Though mine was an injury . . . many others’ could be disease, laziness, apathy, and lack of resources, time, or knowledge of the importance of wellness.”

In leading health and fitness groups, mentoring others, and “seeing lives change first-hand,” said Willis, she has found her life-long calling.

“I have felt no greater joy than when I get to be an enabler, a life-coach and motivational speaker, making a difference in people’s lives one by one.”


Community

Varina Ruritans honor students

The Varina Ruritan Club hosted the winners of its 2014 Environmental Essay contest at its monthly meeting March 11 in Varina.

The contest, in its eighth year, was for the first time open to students in grades 3-5 at Varina Elementary School. (It previously was open to Sandston Elementary School students.)

The meeting included the winners, parents of the winners, Varina Elementary principal Mark Tyler and several teachers who were in charge of the contest at the school. > Read more.

Baseball game to benefit Glen Allen Buddy Ball


For the fifth consecutive year, St. Christopher’s and Benedictine will play a varsity baseball game at Glen Allen's RF&P Park as part of a fundraising effort for the River City Buddy Ball program.

The game will take place Saturday, April 12, at 7 p.m., and the teams hope to raise $3,000 through donations, raffles and other efforts. Admission to the game is free, but fans who attend are asked to donate funds for the Glen Allen Youth Athletic Association's Buddy Ball program, which enables disabled children and teens to play baseball. > Read more.

Highland Springs field to be dedicated in honor of longtime coach Spears

The Henrico Division of Recreation and Parks will dedicate the Highland Springs Little League Majors Field in memory and honor of Rev. Robert “Bob” L. Spears, Jr., on April 12 with a ceremony at the field at 8 a.m.

Spears served the league as a coach and volunteer for 30 years and was praised as a pioneer for equality. His “Finish strong” motto embodied ethical perseverance on the field and in life. > Read more.

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Entertainment

A fun, fuzzy ride

‘Muppets Most Wanted’ worthy of its franchise

Do Muppets sleep? It’s hard to say.

They don’t really eat (or breathe, as far as anyone can tell). And only occasionally do they have visible, functioning legs.

As far as anyone knows, sleeping might be off the table. And that makes it very hard to accuse the Muppets of sleepwalking through their latest feature, Muppets Most Wanted – even if that’s exactly what’s going on.

Jim Henson’s beloved creations were back in a big way after 2011’s The Muppets, with fame and fortune and even an Oscar, a first for the group (“Rainbow Connection” was nominated, yet somehow failed to collect at the ’79 ceremony). > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


There’s no excuse for kids and families to not get out of the house this weekend! The Armour House and Gardens has an “Egg-celent Egg-venture” planned and Reynolds Community College will host the Reynolds Family Palooza. If you’re looking to give back to your community, Dorey Park will host Walk Like MADD and coordinators2inc will present the annual Kids Walk for Kids. And a special event for children with special needs will be on Sunday – the Caring Bunny will be at Virginia Center Commons. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

A new meaning for fried chicken

Is it heresy to say – in this bastion-of-tradition capital of the Old South – that it's time for Southern fried chicken to take a step back and make way for a new fried chicken king?

Count me among the new believers bowing to Bonchon Chicken's delectable double-fried bliss. Hand-brushed with signature garlic soy or hot sauce, flash-fried once and then again, the decadent drums and wings take "crisp" to a new level. If you're eating with a crowd and everyone bites in at once, be warned: you might need ear plugs to handle the din. > Read more.

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