Carissa Kelley, 24, took a last-chance opportunity and ended up Miss Kansas 2011. "This was my one and only shot and I'm glad I took it," she said. This was her last year before aging out of the Miss Kansas pageant age eligibility. Her title of Miss Wooded Hills took her to the Miss Kansas Pageant in Pratt.
"I always thought about the Miss America system, but every year, it seemed it was a bad time to get ready for it. This was a new kind of venture," Carissa, who lives in Winfield, said.
She has attended Cowley County Community College and Southwestern, has done some substitute teaching and is now intent on going back to school.
"It's taken me awhile to figure out what I want to do. I'd like to study diet and nutrition and maybe work for a hospital as a dietitian," she said.
The $5,000 scholarship she received with the Miss Kansas title and the $3,000 she will receive for competing in Miss America will help fund her education.
She says one reason she's glad she waited until now to compete is that she thinks her maturity helped her win the title.
In her most recent job, she traveled a lot and was faced with problems that would need to be solved on the spot.
She worked for Revolution Talent Competition, registering dance studios across the country.
"I talked with people in all walks of life, so it was interesting," she said.
When asked if she has seen some great talent and some, well, not so great, she laughed and said, "I sure have. It's been a lot of fun."
She was a bit apprehensive about her own talent in the pageant.
"I hadn't really danced in six years. I had to really work. I know I'll need some serious practice before the Miss America pageant."
She says the swimsuit competition doesn't bother her because she works at staying fit. But she admitted, "I felt a little more fluffy than I wanted to be. A little softer than I like to be. I'd been traveling so much, it was difficult to get my body where I want it to be," she said.
The Miss America system puts emphasis on the contestants platform — the issue that she would try to educate the public on if she is chosen Miss America.
"My platform is youth empowerment. It's not just about how to handle bullying, but more about lack of self-esteem," she said.
While student teaching, she witnessed the mistreatment of a fourth-grader with learning disabilities. She said it pained her to see this.
"I decided I had to be his voice and tried to get students to work together in class, to put themselves in his shoes. Toward the end of the year, it was a better situation," she said.
And she has helped her two younger sisters, Savannah, 15, and Isabella, 8, deal with situations in their lives.
She knows she'll have many busy days fulfilling her obligations as Miss Kansas and getting ready for the Miss America competition in January. And she hopes to squeeze some time out of her schedule for her sisters and her parents, Dawn and Mike Kelley.
"Yes, there are four women and my dad. Even the two dogs are female. My dad says there is so much estrogen in the house he cries when he walks in the door," Carissa said with a laugh.
Thinking ahead 10 years or so, with the Miss Kansas reign in her distant past and her education completed, what will she be doing?
"Who knows? I guess I can just say that I hope I'm happy. I would like to have a family, but it depends on what God has planned. I like Him to take care of that."