"I had nightmares every night."
"I didn't understand why it was happening."
"I didn't want people to judge me."
This year, 16 incredible young women will take the stage in North Platte to compete for the title of Miss Nebraska. We only see the sparkle and the smiles.. we don't always see the story behind each contestant, the life experiences that contributed to who each person is.
One of these women is tired of hiding. Her name is Tristen, and she is determined to share her story with every, single person willing to listen.
"As one of the 1 in 6 women who have been/will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, I know how important it is to educate America on this problem," Tristen told me recently. "Sexual assault is often put on the back burner and not addressed due to its sensitive and uncomfortable status. Well guess what, I'm not here to make people feel comfortable; I am here to save lives."
Tristen Wecker is part of a unique Miss Nebraska class; she is one of 13 contestants this year who have never competed at Miss Nebraska before.
"I have always admired the Miss Nebraska Organization," said Tristen. "It really is an organization that represents such poise, elegance, and empowerment. Last year I decided I was ready to be one of those girls who makes a difference in her community and stands for something she believes in. I competed in my first ever pageant last year and was amazed at how much it had to offer me. Aside from the countless friendships I made, I also took away with me interview skills, a better view of myself as a woman, and scholarship money for college. Even though I didn't walk away with a crown that night, I knew competing in the Miss Nebraska Organization was something that God had put on my heart. I have so much to teach others and so much to share about my platform."
Tristen returned to compete in the first preliminary pageants possible to qualify for Miss Nebraska 2017.. and she won, crowned Miss Old West Balloon Fest last summer.
"I knew this was a sign from God that I was ready to make an impact," said Tristen. "With a crown on my head and the Lord at my side, I knew that this was my calling."
Young women join our program for any number of reasons; they love to perform, they enjoy networking and meeting people, and they benefit from the thousands in cash scholarships we offer. Tristen, a Minatare High School graduate now studying at Black Hills State University, was drawn to all of it.
"Being driven is a huge part of where I am now," said Tristen. "When I want something for myself or another person, I do everything I can to help make it happen. Between juggling 18 credit hours in college, volunteering for local organizations, working part-time, being family oriented and preparing for Miss Nebraska, I have no choice but to be motivated. Being driven has helped me achieve everything that I have done so far."
Tristen was also eager to share a message. To many of our titleholders, this is known as a platform of service. To Tristen, it's an opportunity to expose part of her soul in the hopes of helping others.
"When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember a series of strange events happening to me," described Tristen. Her story is graphic and disturbing, detailing years of assaults she kept quiet from everyone.
"I finally decided to say something when I was in 7th grade," said Tristen. "I was at a Wednesday night Youth Group and my youth pastor had a lesson that had really told me that it was time. All of a sudden I see myself pouring my heart out to my pastor. I had no intentions of this happening that night. I felt a sigh of relief when she listened and I learned that the same thing had happened to her when she was young. I felt comfort in sharing my secret to someone who understood. I thought that she could help me in this silent battle. A couple days later, I am at school and get called to the office. My school counselor informs me that we are headed to CAPWN, a local organization that takes on cases like mine. I knew what was happening. I was so angry, words couldn't even explain. I thought to myself, how could she say something? My entire high school life is going to be ruined, I'll never be liked. I hated myself and everyone."
Tristen began counseling, and in time, opened herself to support, encouragement and confidence.
"I realized what an amazing woman I am," said Tristen. "At this time I was an 11th grader, I had more volunteer hours than I could count, I had straight A's, I was a starter in volleyball and basketball, and was the captain of the cheerleading squad. I really evaluated myself and thought, 'Why are you hiding your secret? You are a bad-ass woman and its time to stand up for those who can't'. (Excuse my language, I NEVER cuss, but that was literally my thought that day.)"
Tristen is now using her notoriety as a Miss Nebraska titleholder to share that lesson and to address taboos about sexual assault, assumptions even victims may feel about their situations and about themselves.
"Through the Miss Nebraska Organization, I am able to educate citizens on how to identify if someone has been assaulted, how to be an effective bystander, and the legalities and right you are entitled to as a survivor," said Tristen. "Being encouraging is something that is so important to me. When I look back at past events in my life, I remember those who supported and encouraged me through my journeys. I remember how good it felt for someone to believe in me. I strive to make others feel that way."
"Creating lifelong friendships is better than any gown I could try on."
"I am thankful that my struggles have made me realize my true self and my purpose in life."
"I'm not quite where I want to be, but I know I will get there."
In preparing to write this article, I told Tristen how sorry I was all of this had happened to her. She told me, "Don't feel sorry, God had it happen for a reason and now I know why!" This incredible young woman chose to speak out. Beyond just breaking her silence, she turned the volume up to 10, hoping to make a difference for someone else. She exemplifies what I hope people in our audience in North Platte and far beyond remember about all of our contestants.. that they are so much more than sparkle and smiles. They are style, success, scholarship and service. And in the case of Tristen Wecker, Miss Old West Balloon Fest.. STRENGTH.
"Obviously, my goal is to win Miss Nebraska," said Tristen. "It has been my dream to represent this great state with grace and elegance. I am confident that I would serve the title well. If my dreams come true and I win, I hope to share my platform on the Miss America stage and reach millions of people who desperately need to hear my message. To me, sharing my platform is more important than winning the Miss America crown, but doing both would be nice."
Click here to follow Miss Old West Balloon Fest Tristen Wecker on Facebook.
Check out the gallery from last year's Miss Nebraska Pageant.
Brandi Petersen is a former Omaha television news anchor, the Co-Marketing Director for the Miss Nebraska Scholarship Organization and the author of blog Anchor’s Away. To read more about this year’s Miss Nebraska Pageant contestants, visit www.brandipetersen.com.