A brush with royalty
Miss Va. promotes healthy lifestyles
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.”
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.”
The Richmond West Breakfast Lions Club (based in western Henrico) recently donated 59 backpacks to the Westover Hills Elementary School on Jahnke Road.
Above, club members display some of the backpacks prior to their distribution. > Read more.
Thanks to a first-place win in The American Protege International Vocal Competition 2014, Glen Allen High School student Matija Tomas will travel to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall in December.
At the first-place winners recital in Weill Hall, Matija will perform Giacomo Puccini’s opera aria, “Chi il bel sogna di doretta.” She will perform with other vocalists from around the world and have the opportunity to win other awards and scholarships.
Locally, Thomas has performed with Richmond’s renowned Glorious Christmas Nights, Christian Youth Theatre, and WEAG’s Urban Gospel Youth Choir. > Read more.
The John Rolfe YMCA and Gayton Baptist Church have partnered in an effort to bring greater health and wellness opportunities to the community.
Through this partnership, the John Rolfe Y will run Youth Winter Sports programs, including basketball and indoor soccer, in Gayton’s newly renovated $5.5 million outreach center that features a new gymnasium, youth and teen space, social space with café, meeting space and full service commercial kitchen. > Read more.
CAT Theatre’s 51st season will open with Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, which will run from Oct. 24-Nov. 8. Adapted by Steven Dietz, it is based on the original 1899 play by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and was the winner of the 2007 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Play.
The plot follows what seems to be the end of the career of the world’s greatest detective as he is confronted with a case far too tempting to ignore. When the King of Bohemia faces blackmail by famed opera singer Irene Adler, Holmes and his faithful companion, Dr. Watson, find themselves falling into the trap of evil genius Professor Moriarty. As Holmes says, “The game is afoot Watson, and it is a dangerous one!” > Read more.
Paid extras are being sought to appear in the AMC television series TURN: Washington's Spies, which will begin filming its second season in the Richmond area at the end of September and continue through February.
No experience is required, but producers say that extras must have flexible availability, reliable transportation and a positive attitude.
Arvold Casting is holding an open call on Sunday, Sept. 21 and is seeking men, women and children who are Caucasian, African American and Native American, with thin to average builds and who can realistically portray people living in Revolutionary War times. Long hair is a plus but not a must. > Read more.
TGIF! Celebrate the weekend at Oak Hall Baptist Church’s Community Block Party on Saturday. Learn more about ballroom dancing, art and Colonial times. Or take the kids to Generation Z Games for water play or Southern Season to cook up a Disney-theme meal. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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