Bus fare adds up, Camden native Caress Green realized. Bringing eight teenage girls across the Delaware and back cost $40 that came from her own pocket, just like most of the expenses leading up to the first inaugural Miss Camden Teen Queen Pageant, coming up on Aug. 10.
A Camden first
Camden’s first and only citywide pageant to celebrate teen girls grew out of Green’s two-year-old Caress Embrace Foundation, dedicated to supporting local youth. A former teacher and daycare director, Green now works as a mentor to girls and boys of all ages from every neighborhood of her home city.
Green recalled a mentoring session with a group of girls dealing with a troubling stereotype: “In Camden, you’re gonna be somebody’s baby’s mother, or you’re gonna be the girl that’s sleeping with everybody.”
“What can I do besides sitting down every day talking to these girls?” she wondered. “What can I do to boost the morale of the girl and the morale of the city? I’m going to do a pageant.”
A deeper purpose
That decision came last fall, and Green dove into researching the event, along with her volunteer project partner, Ivelisse Gonzalez, who works as a restaurant server. By last December, Green was visiting Camden schools to spread the work about the event, and girls began to enroll in the following months.
But the Miss Camden Teen Queen Pageant isn’t a beauty contest. For Green and the girls, the real story is one of holistic self-improvement, inspiration and “sisterhood.” Last winter, with the help of Gonzalez and a male volunteer named Niger Ali, despite a lack of funding or even a dedicated space, Green launched her Princess Academy for pageant contestants.
She and girls meet every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a variety of speakers, discussions and activities designed to teach crucial life skills like etiquette, hygiene and stress management, as well as offering academic support.
“A Camden trend”
“When I first came into the room, I wanted to see what they were going to do,” Green remembered, chatting with NewsWorks and the girls recently at the Philadelphia Marriott on Market Street. “Nobody spoke or introduced themselves.” So the etiquette lessons began at the beginning, with the skills of greeting others.
The girls, now 12 in all, from ages 11-17, discuss how to combat bullying and sexual objectification and how to dress and act in age-appropriate ways.
“A lot of the girls have the notion that gotta look this way to get this attention,” Green explained. “It’s a Camden trend. Having children young: that’s a Camden trend.”
The Princess Academy’s fundamental rule is simple: “You have to treat each other the way you would want to be treated. … If we do see one of our sisters down, we go to her.”
Inspiration in motherhood
When Green herself was a teenager, members of her own family struggled with many of the same problems her girls face, including drug abuse. She became pregnant at 15.
“You gotta learn to move past,” she said. “Just because the past taps you on the shoulder doesn’t mean you gotta turn around.”
When a family ultimatum landed the teen mom in a nine-week parenting class, she found her lifelong passion, forging a career in childcare and mentorship. “It’s just what God put inside my heart,” she said. Now, her son is a student at Camden County College, and her 13-year-old daughter Ajah is the pageant’s sergeant at arms.
Girls making a difference
To participate in the pageant, in addition to performing a talent like singing, dancing, poetry or spoken word, each contestant chose a platform that she’ll carry throughout the year, if she wins.
A conversation with the girls reveals the stakes: Many of them want to tackle problems that have affected their own lives.
Tatyana Aviles, 14, worries about childhood obesity. “I used to be really chunky and I used to get teased,” she shared. “But I couldn’t go outside because my mom said it wasn’t safe, so I didn’t have as much exercise as other people.”
Since then, she’s noticed that many other kids in her neighborhood have the same challenge: “There are a lot of children who are obese, and the reason they’re obese is because they don’t have [anywhere] to play because all the parks are not safe.”
Tamara Quinones, 13, a student at Pyne Point Middle School, wants to focus on drug abuse because it has affected members of her own family. “I don’t see them anymore, and it hurt me and my family in a way that we can’t control,” she explained.
Other girls have taken causes like education, gun violence, homelessness, bullying and mental health services.
Inside the pageant
The pageant itself will be part dramatic performance, part competition, as the girls and their city mentors present an original Wizard of Oz allegory of Camden called “The Wizdom of Oddz.” Different characters will represent different neighborhoods of the city, and all the while, a Wretched Witch yells things like, “You don’t need to graduate! Go ahead and cut school!”
Finally, the girls will perform their talents and face a panel of six judges from Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Cherry Hill and Pennsauken.
Although the Princess Academy initiative and pageant still operate on the dollars and sheer energy of its volunteer organizers, who are still seeking a permanent home for the group’s meetings, Gonzalez and Green are already preparing for next year’s class, which will be mentored by this year’s contestants.
“This is not just a little pageant. This is way more. This is life; this is forever,” Gonzalez said.
The first inaugural Miss Camden Teen Queen Pageant will take place on Aug. 10th at the Michael J. Doyle Fieldhouse. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door (children under 12 are free); the doors open at 5:30 p.m., and the show is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. To reserve tickets, or to get more information, contact Caress Green at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (856) 883-6570.