Family tragedy shapes some Miss America platforms

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Raeanna Johnson and the rest of her family didn't know her 18-year-old brother Tyler was addicted to methamphetamine until after he committed suicide and his toxicology report came back.

"We had no idea," said Johnson, 24, who's representing Wisconsin in this year's Miss America pageant.

She's one of several contestants whose family tragedies have determined the public-service platform they chose for the competition. Hers is named after her brother: "Tyler's Legacy: The Impact of Substance Abuse on The Family."

She's not alone. Miss Kansas Amanda Sasek's father committed suicide when she was 17. Miss Delaware Brittany Lewis is still waiting for an arrest in her sister's slaying.

The platforms outline a social or public-service cause that the contestants plan to pursue or publicize.

"Since his death, I've learned the science of and the effects of meth on the human body," said Johnson, who hopes for a career in nonprofit development. "I am adamant about wanting to prevent tragedies like this from happening to other families."

The contestants will talk about their platforms during the nationally televised pageant finale on Sunday night.

"All 53 contestants every year have something that motivates them toward their area of community service," said Sam Haskell, CEO of the Miss America Organization. "The catalyst is usually something personal. I find it incredibly empowering for the contestants to talk about their issues. Through their own tragedies, they want to help others."

Sasek's platform as Miss Kansas is to help people find their strengths, in memory of her father.

"After he committed suicide, I thought the way to handle that was to be so strong that I didn't feel anything anymore, didn't have any emotions," said Sasek, 23, who hopes to become a university professor of political science and public policy.

She eventually developed anorexia and had to struggle to overcome it. She wants to help others who have lost loved ones through suicide.

"While I don't have my father anymore, I do have the opportunity to change a lot of lives in the process and have a new beginning," she said.

Miss Delaware has been grieving the death of her sister, Gina Nicole Clarke-Lewis, who was shot to death in her New Jersey apartment in 2010 in a case that remains unsolved.

Her pageant platform is domestic violence prevention. She said her sister had been in an abusive relationship for five years before her death.

"It took me a long time to come to terms with it," said Lewis, 23, who grew up in Brigantine, New Jersey, next door to Atlantic City, and hopes one day to host a political television show. "Being part of the Miss America Organization has given me a voice on being strong and has allowed me to cope and let her memory live on."

She has visited college campuses to talk to young women about healthy dating relationships and how to recognize the warning signs of potentially abusive situations. She has also contacted legislators to urge them to keep domestic violence awareness a priority, and she wants to establish shelters for battered women that have a range of social services all under one roof.


Wayne Parry can be reached at