EAST WINDSOR: Pageant helps make dreams come true

By Amy Batista, Special Writer
EAST WINDSOR – Young ladies from around the area competed in the 5th Annual Miss Next Level Youth Pageant last month.
“The vision for the Miss Next Level Youth Pageant was born by my desire to direct a pageant as well as help little girls dreams come true,” said Evelyn McCleod, executive director of Next Level Youth.
She said that once she told Pandora Wilson-Chess about the program, she was on board and helped the vision become a reality.
“We never imagined it would materialize into helping young ladies grow and improve their confidence,” said Ms. McCleod. “Because of the pageant’s success, seeing how the young ladies were blossoming, we turned it into a mentoring program and the pageant kicks off our year.”
The pageant was held at the Melvin H. Kreps School on Oct. 23.
“This year we had 20 contestants, but last year we had 41,” she said, adding that due to the late confirmation of the event’s date, the number of participants was lower.
The 2015 queens took a few minutes to introduce themselves on stage followed by the introduction of the judges for the evening, which included Assemblyman Dan Benson of 14th District.
The pageant also offered a mother/daughter category.
Several special presentations were made before the pageant got fully under way. A check for $10,000 was donated by Cindy Manzo on behalf of her company, Church & Dwight in Ewing, to Next Level Youth. Ms. Manzo is also on the board of directors.
“Through the generosity of their employees, they give dozens and dozens of financial grants to local charities,” she said.
Keith Jackson, a founder of Next Level Youth – which was formed in 2006 – said the group is grateful for the donation.
“We’re committed to the community,” he said. “Not only are we involved in the pageant, but we also run athletic programs and more importantly, tutoring and mentoring programs. So our goal is to really grab the youth and help the children live a better way.” He said through those programs, the group tries to help expose participants to things that they are not typically exposed to.
“This event is a very good example of what we do by giving young women an opportunity to stand in front of you all and share their talents,” he said.
Assemblyman Benson thanked the Next Level Youth for receiving the Humanitarian Award last year as he presented it to East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov.
“I was very privileged and humbled to receive the Humanitarian Award last year and it’s my privilege this year to announce a well-deserved recipient this year. The 2015 Humanitarian Award recipient goes to Janice Mironov,” he said.
He said she has been a tremendous leader in East Windsor for more than 20 years.
“She is the epitome of open and transparent government,” he said. “She involves all her residents through various boards and commissions.”
Mayor Mironov thanked Next Level Youth, its board, all the members and individuals who are critical to making the organization work.
“We are very proud that Next Level is part of our East Windsor Municipal Alliance, which is a broad-based effort within our community to provide outreach, support, and assistance to members of our community, most especially young people,” she said.
The mayor said she was particularly impressed and got great joy out of hearing all of the aspirations and dreams of the young people who came up and introduced themselves.
“We all know with the kind of support and the foundation that many within our community and great groups like Next Level provide, that they won’t be just dreams. These will be real objectives and real achievements by all these young people.”
Next, the contestants started with their creative wear followed by the evening gown competition. Prior to the start of the pageants the contestants had their interview portion with the judges.
Ms. McCleod said that they already know their date for 2016 and it will be Nov.11 in honor of Veterans Day.
“Thanks to the sponsorship of one of our dads, we will actually have members of the military escort our contestants on stage,” she said. “We hope a lot more ladies will come out and benefit from our program.”
Staff Sgt, Roy Thompson, Kylie Barber’s father, said that this year’s pageant with Next Level Youth was an amazing experience for his family.
“From the pre-pageant practices to the volunteering opportunities, I have seen a huge change in my daughter’s confidence,” he said. “Ms. Evelyn and Ms. Pandora have always supported the military families within the Next Level Youth program.”
He said he suggested to them that they should move the pageant to Veterans Day so that not only the military pageant families, but all veterans’ families can feel the support and love provided by organizers.
Ms. McCleod said that since the group is non-profit under the auspices of Next Level Youth, the fees are low and funds received are used to only pay for bills. All staff members are volunteers.
She said that the members of the program spend the year doing a tremendous amount of community service, attending fun events and are even invited VIP guests at many formal affairs.
“They have appeared on The Reel television show, The Today Show and on the radio live numerous times,” she said. “They participate in walks for the American Heart Association, Leukemia Lymphoma Society, Susan G. Koman (NY and NJ) toname a few.”
Ms. McCleod said that the highlight of doing the pageants is “seeing the young ladies grow, the smiles on their faces, and hearing their positive words and that of their parents.”
“Several young ladies and their parents have commented how their grades have improved as a result of the program because of several factors one of which is teaching interviewing skills which builds confidence,” she said. “We are not just a pageant, we teach life skills.”
“Violet’s confidence has already went up in a great way,” said Alana Izcoa of Flemington. “I’m so happy she was given this opportunity and I can’t wait to keep on supporting her.”
Olga Trillo of Trenton said that her daughters and granddaughter were happy to participate in the pageant.
“They didn’t win, but they had so much fun,” she said. “Thank you for the opportunity you gave them.”
Edith Norris of Browns Mills said her daughter Kylie was excited about participating in the event.
“She was super-excited when she got director’s choice,” she said.
Julie Howerton of Vineland said that The Miss Next Level Youth Program has provided her daughters the same opportunities that others have, even with the challenges they face, and are always welcomed with open arms, and treated with the greatest respect.
Her daughter, Rylee, won Junior Pre-Teen with Violet.
Ms. McCleod said that when a young lady joins their program, they automatically win entry into several pageants and their winners receive free entry.
“In 2015, five of our winners went on to win other pageants thanks to our sponsors welcoming them with free entry,” she said. “As a result, they were awarded trips to California and Florida visiting Disney World and Disney Land.”
She said that they also all receive a $3,600 in modeling, acting, and signing scholarship and their winners get a $7,200 scholarship.
“Our 2014 Pre-teen queen, Kaylia, actually filmed a commercial.,” she said. “Next month, our first ever Daughter of the Year, Skyy, will be going to California to compete in the National American Miss Pageant, one of our many sponsors and the largest teen pageant in the United States.”
Skyy won the New Jersey title in August and has been a member of the program since its inception.
This year’s winners included: Mother/Daughter – Lois and Tory; Miss category – Randi; Teen category – Brittany; Pre-teen category – Johaira; Jr. Pre-Teen category – Violet and Rylee; Director’s Choice category – Kylie; and Lifetime Queen – Courtney.