A pageant with heart: 2018 Pennsylvania International Pageant to be held at Jaffa Shrine Center

Courtesy photo Reigning titleholders of the Pennsylvania International Pageant are, from left, Miss Teen Pennsylvania International 2017 Leigha Pertz, Miss Pennsylvania International 2017 Kaitlyn Lucas and Mrs. Pennsylvania International 2017 Amanda Leber.

Beautiful women, gowns and crowns are sometimes the first things that cross a person’s mind when thinking about pageants.

The winners of the 2017 Pennsylvania International Pageant have proved that pageantry is more than these cliches. With causes that are important to them, these women have taken the last year to serve others, raise awareness of causes dear to them and boost the reputation of pageantry.

The 2017 winners, whose reigns will end on March 17 when the 2018 winners are crowned, had an impressive year of working for their platforms. Amanda Leber, a kindergarten teacher from Pittsburgh and Mrs. Pennsylvania International 2017, has poured her soul into her platform, Dance for the Heart.

“I created it after my brother passed in December 2015 from a heart attack at the age of 23. I knew I wanted to become an advocate for the American Heart Association, so I found my own unique way to do that,” she said.

Leber is a certified Zumba instructor who teaches dance fitness classes to men and women to promote heart health.

She supports the American Heart Association through the Pittsburgh Heart Walk Team Mike’s Militia in memory of her brother.

Competing in the pageant was a cathartic way to help her grieve his passing.

“This process helped me through my grief and bring me back to myself. I got to live a heart healthy lifestyle, talk to others about Mike’s story and create my own unique way to advocate the mission of the American Heart Association. I took something tragic in my life and turned it into something positive, and I know Mike is proud of me for that. I am so thankful to this organization for allowing me to do this,” Leber said.

Kaitlyn Lucas, a registered medical assistant and nursing student from Coopersburg, is Miss Pennsylvania Internation-al 2017.

Her platform also is The American Heart Association. She chose to support it after a frightening time in her personal life.

“Almost two years ago, a life-threatening bacterial streptococcal infection attacked my heart and hospitalized me for several days. I was placed on three different medications, told not to exercise for over three months and that I must have regular checkups with a cardiologist. My diagnosis of pericarditis had completely shocked me and showed me the importance of staying heart healthy,” she said.

Lucas is proud of the work she was able to do this past year to raise awareness about heart health.

She attended the Lehigh Valley Go Red for Women luncheon where she was honored as the Heart Expert award recipient.

She shared her personal story in the Lehigh Valley Health Network and posts as a guest blogger on the American Heart Association’s website.

She has spoken with legislation and lobbied for the CPR in Schools bill to be passed at the State Capital.

Lucas also began the From My Heart To Yours Pillow Project providing more than 100 patients with homemade heart-shaped pillows during recovery from open heart surgeries.

“I have made it my mission to educate others on how they can take control of their heart health before it’s too late,” Lucas said.

Pageantry provides opportunities for service and increases confidence to the women who participate in the contests. Leigha Pertz from Brockway is a freshman biology/pre-med major at the University of Pittsburgh. She won Miss Teen Pennsylvania International 2017 on a platform of anti-bullying and youth leadership. She took up pageantry at a time in her life when she was bullied and makes it her mission to help others overcome the cruelties of it.

During the past years, she teamed up with former Pittsburgh Steeler Mel Blount to help with his youth leadership initiative.

She also participated in the UPMC Walk for Children’s. Pertz is proud of her service and thankful to pageantry because of the confidence it inspires in her and other women.

“I’m all about embracing who you are and about being confident in yourself. I’m more confident in myself because I’m surrounded by other women who are confident. How empowering it is to be around women who all stand for something,” she said.

Lucas agreed. “It (pageantry) gives me the opportunity to bring light to a platform, meet other women who have similar interests as me and build my confidence whether it be on stage or in an interview room,” she said.

Jodi Cessna, state director for the Miss Teen, Miss and Mrs. Pennsylvania International pageants, won Mrs. Pennsylvania International in 2003 and is directing the pageant for her 15th year.

In August, she received the Miss Teen and Miss International State Director of the Year award from the International Pageants.

In January, she was named in the top 10 of the state directors in pageantry for 2017, presented by Pageant Planet.

Cessna is proud of her accomplishments as a past winner and is honored to be able to continue to guide women in the pageant-ry tradition and through their year as winners.

She said, “Each year is different just because of the girls. They each have their own stories and their own personal platforms to support. I had my year and it was incredible. I like to support them and for them to have the same opportunities.”

If you go

What: 2018 Pennsylvania International Pageant

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 17

Where: Jaffa Shrine Center, Altoona

Admission: $15

More information: Visit www.papageants.com