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Newly crowned Miss America Laura Kaeppeler of Kenosha couldn’t hear their cheers from the stage Saturday in Las Vegas, but a contingent of hometown supporters was elated to watch her coronation on television.
“It was bigger than the Super Bowl,” said Kerstin Santarelli, who gathered with about a dozen teachers from St. Joseph Catholic Academy, where Kaeppeler’s mother, Susan, is a teacher.
“It was screaming and shouting and tears of happiness,” Santarelli, a principal in the St. Joseph Lower School, said Sunday.
Texts quickly jumped from cellphones in Kenosha to smartphones in Vegas, where Joya (Zamora) Santarelli, Kerstin’s sister-in-law, was in the crowd to see Kaeppeler get her crown.
After a press conference following her win, Kaeppeler gathered with her parents, Miss Wisconsin pageant representatives and Joya, a former Miss Wisconsin and Miss Kenosha winner, for a few moments in a private suite. Sequestered from friends and family for 10 days before the final Miss America ceremony, it was the first time she got to see anyone from her hometown.
“Quite honestly, I think she was still in shock,” Joya said Sunday, just before taking off for a flight from Denver. “She just kept saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m Miss America!’ It was still settling in. She’s just so excited and grateful.”
It was the culmination of a journey that began “on a whim,” Joya said.
Kaeppeler, 23, entered the Miss Kenosha pageant to talk about her work mentoring children of incarcerated adults, a cause she embraced after her father went to federal prison for fraud.
After being named Miss Kenosha 2010, Kaeppeler went on to win the Miss Wisconsin 2011 title in June.
“I felt like being Miss Wisconsin would give me such a loud voice for being a spokesperson for these children,” said Kaeppeler, who started Circles of Support, a website dedicated to mentoring work.
“Promise me one thing,” she says in a letter on the site addressed to children of incarcerated parents. “You will always surround yourself with positive role models and never lose faith in yourself. This situation does not define you. Dream BIG — you can achieve anything you set your mind to. I believe in you. and I believe in the power of your future!”
It was a message Kaeppeler brought to her alma mater St. Joseph, where she gathered with students in December.
“She made the kids promise three things: One, that they would put God first. Two, they would always try their best. And, three, they would always believe in themselves,” said Kerstin, who wore a pink Miss America pin with Kaeppeler’s picture to show her support.
“We’ve been part of her journey since she was Miss Kenosha,” she added. “And we will continue to follow her. We will put up a map of the world and chart, ‘Where is Miss America?’”
Already Sunday, Kaeppeler was headed to New York, where she was expected to make the rounds on the morning talk shows this week.
Joya Santarelli expected it to be an eye-opening experience for Kaeppeler, a Carthage College graduate who plans to use her $50,000 Miss America scholarship money to attend law school and further her work with prisoners’ families.
“Can you imagine? Can you even imagine, if that were you? She’s never left Kenosha. Maybe on vacation, but she’s never left for long,” Joya said.
Wherever her travels take her, Joya said Kaeppeler knew she would have the support of her hometown.
“Laura is like a little sister to me, so the amount of pride I have is unexplainable,” she added. “I’m thrilled for her. I’m thrilled for her family. I’m thrilled for the city of Kenosha and the state of Wisconsin. It’s just such a big deal. ... This crown is going to be a catalyst for her to do just some wonderful things.”
And, Joya added, “Her story is one for people to learn from: No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what you’ve been through in life, if you really set your mind on a particular goal, you really can achieve your goal.”
Miss America 2012, Laura Kaeppeler of Kenosha, will be on television programs this week:
— “Good Morning America,” 7 to 9 a.m., ABC
— “Inside Edition,” 3 p.m., WLS
— “Inside Edition,” 12:30 a.m., WDJT; 7 a.m., WMLW
— “Fox & Friends,” 7 a.m. hour on Fox Business Network
— “The Wendy Williams Show,” 10 a.m., WITI and WFLD
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