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Abstinence Advocate is New Miss America!
Popular Miss Illinois wins coveted crown, title
Erika Harold
Erika Harold
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - Miss Illinois Erika Harold, 22, an enthusiastic advocate of teen abstinence education, won the coveted Miss America title for 2003 on September 21 in Atlantic City. She captured the crown with her beauty, poise, interview skills, and singing talent.

Miss Harold has been a spokeswoman for Illinois' leading abstinence education organization, Project Reality, since 1999, addressing thousands of young people in Illinois public schools about empowering youth to make good life decisions. When she won the Miss Illinois pageant, the state required her to adopt its official platform of teen violence prevention, and she successfully wove the abstinence message into that issue.

"Erika sees the connection between helping teens to avoid all risky behaviors in order to prevent violence," stated Project Reality director of public relations Libby Gray. "Her work with abstinence education will greatly enhance programs and efforts to address teen violence during her reign as Miss America."

A graduate of the University of Illinois-Champaign, Miss Harold has been accepted at the country's five leading law schools and has decided to attend Harvard Law School. She will enter Harvard after her year-long reign as Miss America comes to a close.

"Erika's winning Miss America is one of those dream situations that you don't think can come true," said Kathleen Sullivan, director of Project Reality. "Fortunately for everyone, this dream did come true because Erika is a wonderful role model for young women."

After being chosen Miss East Central Illinois in 1999, Miss Harold earned the state's community service award for her work with her platform: "Teenage Sexual Abstinence: 'Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself.'" (See Education Reporter, November 1999.) In this year's contest, Erika held the preliminary title of Miss Land of Lincoln before being crowned Miss Illinois 2002.

As a Project Reality spokeswoman, Miss Harold addressed audiences as diverse as national and state legislators and the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago. Last spring, she submitted written testimony on welfare reform reauthorization to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce supporting abstinence education programs nationwide.

Mrs. Sullivan pointed out that many of the Miss America contestants are exceptional young women who care about important issues. She cited first runner-up Miss Alabama, Scarlotte Deupree, whose platform emphasized the importance of teaching children to read. "Miss Deupree talked about the importance of mothers reading to their children as a benefit to the entire family," Mrs. Sullivan said.

At a reception immediately following the nationally televised pageant, the new Miss America urged her fellow contestants to "keep together" for the purpose of bringing "good" messages to young people, including sexual abstinence and avoidance of drugs, alcohol, and violence. "Such encouragement from glamorous young women who are themselves successful in practicing these virtues can make a big difference in young people's lives, as our Project Reality spokeswomen have shown," asserted Mrs. Sullivan.

Last January, Project Reality organized a "Power of Abstinence" celebration for several hundred Chicago-area students. Fifteen young women representing 13 states and the District of Columbia, who successfully competed in beauty pageants including Miss America, Miss Black USA and Miss All-American Latina, made short presentations at this celebration after advocating for abstinence as their pageant platforms.

In April, a group of pageant titleholders including Miss Black USA 2001 Lisa Marie Miree, Miss Wisconsin 1999 Mary Louise Kurey, and Miss Nevada 2001 Ashley Huff, traveled to Washington, DC to meet with Congressmen and their staffs about the need to continue funding for abstinence-until-marriage programs. "These programs are helping teens to understand the benefits of abstinence as well as helping them to avoid the negative consequences of STDs and pregnancy," Project Reality spokeswoman Kurey told the Congressmen. "Continuing funding for these programs will reduce costs in other areas and will benefit young people both physically and emotionally."

Funded in part by a grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services, Project Reality's programs - including the popular "Game Plan" abstinence curriculum by A. C. Green - served 71,000 students last year in Illinois alone. Abstinence education programs have been credited for contributing to the recent decline in teen births, currently at a 40-year-low in Illinois.

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