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Miss Wisconsin’s platform: mentor children of the incarcerated

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KENOSHA — As Miss Wisconsin 2011, Laura Kaeppeler, of Kenosha, has her mind on more than competing in January for the Miss America 2012 title in Las Vegas.

The St. Joseph High School class of 2006 graduate and Carthage College alumnus holds a degree in vocal performance, which figures into the singing talent she’ll showcase in Las Vegas.

But, instead of pursuing a music-oriented Miss America platform, Kaeppeler, 23, chose to lend her voice to a children’s cause that never has been espoused among contestant platforms in the pageant’s history.

Kaeppeler’s platform, “Circles of Support: Mentoring children of incarcerated parents,” aims at reducing and perhaps breaking the cycle of crime that children of jailed parents, without positive and strong adult support to provide them guidance, often find themselves caught up in for reasons they’re ill prepared to understand. On her website, she defines its mission as providing support to children of all ages, encouraging positive decision making and helping to develop glowing self-esteem.

In person, she said: “My platform has substance for a couple of reasons. First is my personal experience. My passion for this comes because I’ve been there. I’ve lived it. Second, in the 90 years Miss America has existed, it’s a platform that’s never been explored before.”

Wanting to protect her father’s privacy, she only reluctantly spoke on the record of the personal experience she had as a 17-year-old when he was sent to federal prison for a year after being convicted of a white collar crime. When she describes that time in her life, the pain is evident in her eyes, which brighten as she goes on to say how she and her father have grown much closer since his release from prison five years ago. Now, she added, he backs her platform completely and strongly supports her hopes to make it a lifelong commitment.

The mentoring need she sees for children made particularly vulnerable by negative influences in their lives is real, Kaeppeler said.

“With kids, I’m still one of them in a sense. So, spending time with them is helpful for me to learn from them. I look at them in their eyes and remember being in their shoes. It’s true for millions of people across the country. It’s everyday life for millions of children. And it allows me to connect with people on a level they don’t expect a pageant contestant to connect with them. This is a real problem people can relate to,” Kaeppeler said.

She leaned forward as she spoke, impassioned, earnestly making her point.

Since articulating her platform publicly as Miss Wisconsin, she has received numerous letters, phone calls and emails from parents she has visited in facilities like Racine Correctional Institute, as well as members of their families. They say what she has talked about opened their eyes to things they had not seen before and possibilities for making changes in their lives and the lives of the children they left outside the prison walls.

At every appearance she makes, at least one person has approached her to share similar sentiments in person.

When she spent time a few weeks ago talking to some 200 male RCI inmates, she stressed the importance of them building and maintaining fatherly relationships with their children. Later, an inmate’s sister told Kaeppeler her brother had called and said after Kaeppeler left RCI that night, he had never before seen the lines so long with fellow inmates waiting to use the phones to call home and speak with their kids.

“That’s a testimony to why I chose this platform. The positive response it’s received is also testimony,” Kaeppeler said. “What I’ve found is it’s therapeutic for people to talk about it, a freeing experience, because a lot of times these children feel this experience that is out of their control defines them. A lot of time, incarceration cycles in families. They don’t think there is another way out for them.”

Mentoring can help the children see an alternative path to a healthier future, she said.

She feels Circles of Support, and her mission within it, recently got a big boost when she recently spent time in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore visiting with Diane Wallace Booker, executive director of the U.S. Dream Academy, and others from the organization, who showed her around neighborhoods and Dream Academy centers where staggering numbers of youths are children of incarcerated parents.

Her hope is to become the national spokesperson for the organization, which works to help put children on paths to success, and Kaeppeler said if she is crowned Miss America, she can step into the role the next day because of the strong connections her platform already has established advocating for children of the incarcerated. She sees the role not as a yearlong Miss America engagement, but one lasting well beyond a year’s reign as the pageant winner.

Even if she isn’t named a finalist, she believes partnering with Dream Academy would be mutually beneficial not only for herself and the organization but for the children they aim to help take flight.

It would be easy to chalk up her stated passion and goals as pageant campaign rhetoric or perhaps the idealistic yearnings of naivete. And, according to Kaeppeler, it would be wrong.

“I knew there would be speculation from people — and doubt,” she said. “But I’m proud I stepped out of the box and decided to do something with it,” meaning her platform.

She readily accepts that some of the prisoners she has addressed have been convicted for heinous crimes, some committed against children, some against their own children.

“I realize people are in prison for many reasons. All they can do from where they are now is make an effort to change. No matter what they’re there for, they can only move up from where they’ve been. And kids still deserve a relationship with them as parents,” Kaeppeler said. “At RCI, I looked at them (the inmates) as human beings, fathers, as someone who doesn’t have that relationship with their child.”

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