Taking the runway for children’s mental health

Posted 3/23/23

Driving through Greenwood, you just might see a young woman clicking purposefully, in three-inch high heels with a dog on a leash. By now, she’s all but glued the heels to her feet: they …

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Taking the runway for children’s mental health


Driving through Greenwood, you just might see a young woman clicking purposefully, in three-inch high heels with a dog on a leash. By now, she’s all but glued the heels to her feet: they accompany her to the laundry room and the grocery store; and she would wear them to work, too, if not for the computers and chairs that she regularlydodges, one more piece of her de facto job description. Never having worn heels before, it’s an unexpected twist in her routine — and for a lifelong soccer player, an uncomfortable one — but with a chance at her own press team, a year’s paid leave, and a free vacation, for Julia Pepka, it may well be worth it.  

Julia is a finalist in the Miss Rhode Island USA Pageant 2023. On Memorial Day Weekend, May 26-28, she will be at the VETS with around 50 other social activists-slash-models, where they will take the stage in various rounds of competition, including a red carpet walk and an onstage interview, in which they will demonstrate their physical fitness, talents, and leadership ability. They compete for a place at the national pageant, the title of Miss Rhode Island, the “reigning year”, and all the accompanying glamour. 

 “Obviously the crown and the sash, the bouquet of flowers, all that fun stuff,” she laughs. 

This is Julia’s first time in an event like this: She fist considered a pageant after her friend competed in Miss Florida Teen and raved about it about four years ago. 

Now, Julia is a believer, too. “Just do it and try it. Because there’s no better feeling than opening up the email and seeing that you qualified. I mean, it’s already a boost to your confidence that you’re even selected to go.” 

The cost, she notes, does add up. The pageant charges a $195 entrance fee and $895 more for the finalist weekend. According to Julia, makeup costs $150 per day for the two days of competition, and gowns are between $200 and $2,000 each. To prepare, she also attended two coaching sessions at $125 an hour to perfect her posture, project her voice, and walk confidently in heels and a gown.

 “It’s very nerve-wracking, because you see all the other girls, and obviously everyone is beautiful and doing amazing things, but seeing the supports that they have, [some of them have] raised over $10,000 and I’m struggling with the $500 to $600 that I’ve raised.” She collects money to cover pageant costs on GoFundMe under her name. For National Women’s Month, she is also selling t-shirts with the pageant’s slogan, “Empowered women empower women.” They can be purchased from her Instagram page, @misspostroadriusa. She promises to donate 25% of all proceeds to Crossroads Rhode Island Domestic Violence Program and will use the rest for her Miss Rhode Island campaign.

Julia entered the pageant to raise funds and awareness in support of mental health services for children facing emotional traumas. Julia, 22, previously worked as a Site Coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club and as a 4th grade teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts before she moved to Warwick this year for her new job as a behavioral coach at Thrive Behavioral Health. She works with students from Coventry Middle School through her company while simultaneously pursuing a graduate degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in the Merrimack College online degree program. On the side, she takes per diem shifts working in group homes for Arbor Associates.

Apart from fundraising for her campaign, Julia continues to use her free time to volunteer. Currently, she looks forward to helping the Boys & Girls Club organize mental health workshops. She will also coach at a Girls on the Run camp during her April break.

Her passion for working with children in schools grew throughout her education at Saint Louis School, a small Catholic pre-K to 8th grade school in Massachusetts. She worked as a paraprofessional during high school, and, after college, became a teacher in Springfield. But at the front of the classroom, Julia found that she couldn’t reach students the way she wanted to. Many children battled economic and personal struggles at home, while others lived in foster care. “At the end of the day, I kept feeling like I was failing them. It was heartbreaking.”

Her personal experience with trauma, losing her father at 12 years old to terminal brain cancer, caused her to struggle to brush off a student’s disobedience, difficulty focusing, and trouble communicating with simple labels and punishments. But with 25-student classes and a curriculum to complete, she often found herself with few other options. 

So, after a year, she took a pay cut and traded the teacher’s podium for a desk by the students. Sitting next to them, she gives them in-classroom support, helping them through breakdowns and encouraging them to stay at school.

 “I wouldn’t trade it for anything... Because it’s like, you know, these kids aren’t getting the love they need at home, and they’re not getting attention at home. So, a lot of times, they’re just seeking attention to get adult validation. To give them that is a good feeling.”  

If she wins, Julia will use the year, money, and publicity to continue advocating for children who struggle to access the clinical support that they need, and she will bring her cause to the Miss USA pageant. The state pageant also awards scholarships to multiple finalists. Regardless of the outcome, Julia says that the experience will give her more publicity and contacts, which can only open more doors. After preparing for the rounds of interviews and presentation, she feels more confident to take leadership at her job and in her community.

In any case, if she is still walking her dog in high heels come next year, she may be as comfortable in them as she is in cleats.

Miss RI, pageant, mental health


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