Healthy Choices

Liberian American teen inspires grief-stricken community through pageant

Kolette King, 17, stands backstage at San Joaquin Delta College’s Delta Center for the Arts during the Miss Teen Sacramento/Stockton beauty pageant on Saturday. King, the daughter of two Liberian immigrants, has given her community something to cheer for in the wake of the Ebola epidemic.
Kolette King, 17, stands backstage at San Joaquin Delta College’s Delta Center for the Arts during the Miss Teen Sacramento/Stockton beauty pageant on Saturday. King, the daughter of two Liberian immigrants, has given her community something to cheer for in the wake of the Ebola epidemic. scaiola@sacbee.com

One after the other, 96 girls strutted across a San Joaquin Delta College stage, striking a few poses in the hopes of winning the title of Miss Teen Sacramento/Stockton. Kolette King, dressed in a traditional African floor-length dress and earrings the shape of the African continent, stood out from the line of runway hopefuls – and judges noticed.

King, the daughter of two Liberian immigrants, entered the beauty pageant earlier this month and made it to the top 10 last Saturday, bringing much-needed good news to a community still grappling with the Ebola virus. The disease has taken nearly 3,000 lives in Liberia since the outbreak began and stigmatized West African immigrants in some parts of the U.S.

Contestants submitted a personal statement to be read on stage, many of which detailed lengthy lists of talents and goals. King, a basketball player and active student at Whitney High School in Rocklin, chose to write about her roots in Liberia. Though the 17-year-old has never traveled to her parents’ home country, she said she feels a strong connection to its values and customs.

“(Liberian) is what I am,” she said. “It’s really important to me to know that side ... I love Liberian food, the culture – it’s awesome.”

In a nearly packed auditorium on the Stockton campus, King’s family members, as well as some friends from school and church, raised an audible cheer as the 5-foot-7 teen crossed the stage. King had never entered a pageant before and decided to compete on a friend’s recommendation.

Her mother, Wohma Menyon-King, was one of several women wearing a colorful Liberian “fanti” dress and corresponding head wrap. Menyon-King came to the United States in 1987 as a young woman after being adopted by an American missionary. She left many friends and family members behind, and said she was heartbroken to hear about several deaths in her hometown earlier this summer.

About 450 Sacramento-area residents were born in Liberia, according to the latest census data. Many of the immigrants fled the country in the late 1980s and 1990s during a civil war.

The local community was shaken by the recent Ebola crisis but is starting to hear more positive news from family members, Menyon-King said.

Her daughter’s participation in the pageant and her success in the finals, which was publicly announced at their largely African church Sunday, has provided new energy and excitement for the church community, which helped fund the teen’s $500 pageant entrance fee, even after working hard to raise money for Ebola aid.

“This is a brighter outlook from everything else that’s been happening,” she said. “I’m very proud.”

As a finalist in the Miss Teen Sacramento/Stockton competition, King is eligible to attend the Miss Teen Nationals pageant in Orlando, Fla., where she would compete for prizes, including scholarship money. The high school senior said she plans to attend college and enter the medical field, following in the footsteps of her mother, a registered nurse at Mercy General Hospital. She hasn’t decided whether she will compete in the national event.

She developed her public performance skills at Murph-Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Highlands, where she is a praise dancer and a youth group leader. The Rev. Freda Cash called King “a go-getter” and said her pageant journey has been a big positive.

“They rallied around her to support her however they could,” she said. “We are excited. It’s just wonderful. We were just praising God and thanking God for that to happen.”

Kolleh King said he was proud of his daughter’s choice to highlight her heritage.

“When she decided to use the African garment to show where she is from, it was an amazing moment,” he said. “They should always be proud of their roots.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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