Going for a crown: Twenty-six to vie for titles Saturday

Blair County native Marci McNair is expecting her first baby in July, but it’s been a long road for her to get pregnant.

In fact, part of that journey included a bout of depression that led her to battle it with a bid for the title of Mrs. Pennsylvania International. McNair not only won the pageant last year, she also got pregnant after trying for almost three years to have a baby.

“I made myself busy preparing for the pageant,” McNair said. “I was depressed over not getting pregnant I figured the pageant would place my focus elsewhere.”

McNair, 36, said her husband, Kevin, was very supportive of her efforts to enter the pageant.

“He wanted to not see me cry each month that I wasn’t pregnant,” she said.

McNair is one of three reigning winners of a series of pageants that will be held the same night, April 5, at the Jaffa Shrine Center in Altoona. The pageants are slightly different from most people’s concept of the average beauty pageant, said Jodi Cessna, who first won the Mrs. Pennsylvania Inter-national Pageant then became a pageant director.

For one thing, the Miss Teen, Miss and Mrs. Pennsylvania International pageants, which have counterparts throughout the country and internationally, don’t have a bathing suit category. Instead, contestants compete in aerobic wear and tennis shoes, as well as evening gown events.

In addition, participants advocate a nonprofit cause such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America or some other charitable group, Cessna said.

“There’s nothing wrong with being attractive on the inside as well as the outside,” she said.

The contestants who win spend much of their time traveling through the state and elsewhere appearing at events to promote the cause they chose, Cessna said.

“They work with all different charities throughout the year doing different events,” she said. “They’re everywhere.”

McNair, who is a pro bono attorney now living in Newtown, chose as her cause the Armed Forces Foundation that she heard about from another pageant contestant. She said her most meaningful experience as a titleholder was at a dinner at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., where she first sang the National Anthem. Later she spoke with a wounded soldier from Wisconsin who was recuperating from a brain injury.

“Needless to say, he doesn’t get visitors from home,” she said. “I wouldn’t use the word lonely to describe him but I truly believed that it was therapeutic for him to talk to a new face.”

Rachel Syktich of DuBois, Miss Pennsylvania International 2013, first learned about the cause she supports when she was in elementary school.

“When I was in third grade, I struggled academically and was not very social,” she said.

Her parents, wanting her to gain more confidence, started her in Big Brothers Big Sisters where she was matched with two mentors.

“Both were fantastic,” she said. “We played games, they helped me with my homework, they believed in me.”

After Syktich won her state title, she went on to place in the top 10 in the Miss International pageant last July in Chicago. During her reign, she said her highest point was getting a $125,000 donation for Big Brothers Big Sisters from First Niagara Bank as part of the bank’s National Day of Giving.

“I know the donation will be used to help kids locally,” she said. “Even though my reign is coming to an end, I plan to continue spreading the word about the organization that made such a difference in my life.”

For another pageant winner, Ashlee Fagans of Duncansville, who is the reigning Miss Teen Pennsylvania International, winning the pageant was a dream come true.

“Ever since I was a little girl, my mother and I would go to the Jaffa to watch the pageant every year,” Fagans, 18, said. “I always said to my mom, ‘I want to do that someday!’ ‘I want that to be me!’ ”

Fagans chose as her cause pediatric cancer awareness for a very special, personal reason, because her young cousin was diagnosed with leukemia at just 18 months old. Her cousin is now 8 years old and cancer-free, but other children aren’t as fortunate, Fagans said.

“Seeing someone I love go through this opened my eyes,” she said. “That is why I have been promoting pediatric cancer (awareness) and sharing his story.”

Fagans said the past year has flown by and she feels blessed by the experiences she’s had as a pageant winner.

“I have traveled to places I never thought I would go, met inspiring people and gained friendships that I will have forever,” she said.