Hunterdale girl crowned Miss D.C. Junior Teen

Published 6:44 pm Friday, February 28, 2020

Ava Raiford to compete for national title this July

HUNTERDALE

When Ava Raiford entered and won her first pageant — the Franklin-Southampton County Fair’s Junior Queen contest — at age 8, she hadn’t planned on one day competing at the national level.

Her goal, at the time, was simply to become closer with her sister, Elena, who, despite being two years younger than Ava, had been competing in pageants since age 4 when she was crowned the fair’s first-ever Wee Queen.

“I wanted to be like her,” said Ava, now 12 and a seventh grader at Southampton Middle School.

Ava — now a four-year veteran of the world of dress shopping, spray tans, manicures and interviews — ended up doing a bit more than simply following in her sister’s footsteps, though. Two weeks ago, on Feb. 16, she was crowned Miss District of Columbia Junior Teen, and as such, will be traveling to Walt Disney World in July to represent the district and compete for the title of National Miss Junior Teen at the USA National Miss Scholarship Pageant.

The pageant will include an interview, presentation on stage in an evening gown and a fashion show event. Prior to the date of the competition, Ava must also raise $500 and document at least 50 hours of service for Crown CARES (Creating A Respectful Environment in Schools), an anti-bullying awareness program of the Crossroads Youth Center, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that partners with the USA National Miss organization. To fulfill this requirement, Ava has been traveling each school day to a different class in one of Southampton County’s public and private schools to bring her own unique anti-bullying message to students.

“Currently, I’ve been reading to schools in the area about bullying,” Ava said, explaining that about a year and a half ago, she had written and self-published a children’s book themed around bullying, titled “Ava Spreads Love Wherever She Goes.” Ava then acknowledged she had been bullied upon entering middle school last year, but said the book wasn’t autobiographical, despite the protagonist and her sharing the same name.

“It’s about a group of kids and their friend, named Ava,” she said. “They learn they need to stand up to bullies. I wanted to connect with kids younger than me. I figured the best way to do that was through the book.”

Ava plans to visit classes at Southampton Academy, Meherrin Elementary and Nottoway Elementary in March. When bringing her message to older students, Ava plans to use PowerPoint presentations rather than reading aloud. She also started her own charity last year, Ava’s Toy Box, using a combination of her own money and donations from others to purchase toys for six families in need at Christmas, donating the rest to the Courtland Fraternal Order of Police Lodge’s annual Trooper Robert Hill Toy Ride.

As for Elena, now 10, she holds the 2019 Junior Fair Queen title. The girls’ mother, Penny Raiford, also competed in the 2018 Franklin-Southampton County Fair pageant, where she was crowned the second-ever Ms. Franklin-Southampton County Fair Queen, a pageant division created the year before for women age 22 and up.

“It’s a family affair,” Penny said. “We live, eat, breathe, sleep pageants. It’s a good way for the girls to get public speaking skills and get scholarships. Ava loves to do the community service, and they love to wear the fancy clothes, can’t beat it.”

That said, beauty pageants have been no strangers to controversy over the years. In June 2018, according to a Washington Post story, the Miss America Organization eliminated the swimsuit competition from that year’s contest in an effort to revamp the event for the #MeToo era. Then in 2019, Miss America’s Board of Trustees announced that in that year’s competition, the 51 women representing their home states and the District of Columbia would no longer be judged on outward physical appearance.

Ava and her mother, however, don’t see pageants as sexist or degrading to girls or women, but rather as empowering experiences.

“I think it builds confidence,” Ava said. “Not a lot of people have the guts to go on stage and do what those girls do. I think it shows how brave they are.”

“It’s not just about their beauty,” her mother added. “Not very many 12-year-olds can stand in a room and command the attention of the room. Ava’s well above her age as far as that goes.”

“She’s actually the youngest in her division,” Penny continued, explaining that the national Junior Teen competition is for girls ages 13-15. Ava will just turn 13 in March.

“It’s not going to stop her though,” Penny said.

Ava’s ambitions don’t end with just winning pageants, either. She plans to eventually attend college and hopes to one day study law at Harvard University. Her interest in law and criminal justice stems from watching the TV show “Law and Order,” and from her experiences attending the Governor’s School for Forensic Science in fourth grade.

“I would watch it all the time with my babysitter,” Ava said. “I wanted to be just like Detective Benson.”

According to Penny, Ava has been in Southampton County Public Schools’ gifted program since kindergarten and has earned Principal’s List honors each year for the past seven years, despite needing to miss school days each year to compete in pageants across the state.

“I just pay attention in class,” Ava said when asked how she manages her schoolwork.

SCPS Superintendent Dr. Gwendolyn Shannon has approved Ava’s having certain days off from school to compete in pageants that occur during the school year, Penny added. Thus far, Ava has traveled to competitions in Charlottesville, Roanoke, Richmond, Suffolk, Springfield and Virginia Beach, among other localities, but her trip to Disney World in July will be her first experience competing in an out-of-state pageant.

If Ava is crowned 2020’s national Miss Junior Teen, she will receive a $5,000 scholarship and have the opportunity to travel across the nation to speak about Crown CARES. She plans to host a spaghetti dinner on Sunday, March 29, at the Southampton County fair grounds to raise money for the charity.