‘It’s never right to discourage someone from being who they are’
On March 21, Brookhaven native Miss Mississippi Laura Lee Lewis graced the Southern Miss campus.
Lewis acted as emcee at the SMP Pine Belt Annual Pinnacle Awards that night and was a guest on WUSM in order to discuss her work as Miss Mississippi. Lewis, 23, is currently traveling around the state to share her story and advocate for her platform, Mentoring Matters. She said when she travels to high schools, many of the kids in the crowd judge her the moment she walks on stage.
“I see the students in the crowd and know they are thinking, ‘Blonde- headed girl from Mississippi with a crown on her head – she must love Barbie dolls and all things glitter,’” she said. “But when I start to tell my story and am vulnerable with them, they begin to listen.”
Lewis said the crown on her head is not everything.
“But I do love glitter,” she said and laughed.
What many are not aware of, though, is why mentoring matters to Lewis.
Mentoring Matters began with a kind- hearted gesture by Pamela Fearn, Lewis’ third-grade principal at Brookhaven Elementary. Lewis was born with midface hypoplasia. As she grew up, the bones in her chin overdeveloped, while the bones in the middle of her face were underdeveloped. At age 19, she was able to have reconstructive surgery. Lewis endured constant bullying throughout her formative years because of her condition.
Lewis said Fearn gave her encouragement and confidence, becoming a mentor to her in a time of need.
“She did the simplest thing by pulling me out the classroom from time to time, seeing me in the hallway and saying ‘Hey, come in here for a second. You know I just want to tell you how special you are, how much I appreciate you and I love you. I see such leadership potential in you. You’re going to do something big,’” Lewis said.
The Mississippi State student and Brookhaven High School graduate built her platform on this and similar experiences. As Lewis reflected on the impact Fearn made on her, she came to life.
“Because of that one person, I’m standing here as Miss Mississippi,” she said.
The 2016 title holder said that is why she developed Mentoring Matters – because investing in a child who needs to feel loved is important.
“Not everyone has a Ms. Fearn like I did,” Lewis said. “It is my mission to affect as many people as I can, to get them in schools. If they’re investing in young people, they’re investing in their own future.”
Lewis said her experiences being bullied and persevering helped her to become the best Miss Mississippi she could have ever been.
“You can be whatever you want to be,” Lewis said. “I’m so far from perfect, but I still have this crown on my head.”
After taking a year off from university, the next stop after the crown, Lewis said, is going back to Mississippi State to finish her last semester and get her bachelor’s degree in elementary education with an emphasis in Mathematics and Science.
“Mrs. Fern made an impact on me, so of course I’m going to be a principal just like her,” Lewis said.
Lewis can agree that everything has come to full circle, as she gets to sprinkle a little of her sunshine everywhere while giving back to others.
Though she had surgery to correct her condition, Lewis said healing must start from the inside out.
“If in any case, if someone cannot have their situation fixed, I would say the main focus they need to have is on their heart and on service to others, because it helped me truly forget [my condition] when I started focusing on other people,” she said.
Lewis said there is a lot of hate not only in our state but in our world. Therefore, she developed the platform Treat Me Fairly, which advocates for treating everyone right no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation.
“It’s never right to discourage someone from being who they are – being who you are is the most beautiful part about someone,” she said.
Lewis’ message to people is to look past what is on the outside because to her, it is simply irrelevant.
While visiting Southern Miss, Laura Lee also spent time with Miss Southern Mississippi Kaelyn Wolfe.
Wolfe, a Picayune native, is preparing to move on to the Miss Mississippi pageant scheduled for this summer in Vicksburg.
“I won Miss USM in October, and the following Monday, I was back in the gym,” Wolfe said. “I haven’t stopped yet.”
Wolfe said she loves a busy schedule and admitted that she plans her entire week in 30 minute increments.
Aside from pursuing a master’s degree at Southern Miss in higher education and student affairs, she teaches dance and mentors young girls in Downtown Hattiesburg on Wednesdays.
“I love to love on them and tell them they’re good dancers and that they can do whatever they want to do when they grow up,” she said.
The tap dance lover said her platform is mental health.
In August 2012, Wolfe began pursuing her bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in Spanish.
In just a few short months, Wolfe’s father passed away in November. She described her freshman year of college as “a rollercoaster of emotion and trying to learn what college is as a freshman” while coping with losing a parent.
“I was diagnosed with depression my sophomore year of college – I didn’t tell anybody,” Wolfe said. “One day I finally realized there is somebody else, maybe somebody living in the room next to me, who’s doing the exact same thing.”