By KIPP HANLEY
Published: December 16, 2008
The reception Tara Wheeler received Monday after speaking to 6th graders at Woodbridge Middle School was nearly overwhelming—literally.
The newly crowned Miss Virginia put on her bravest face when throngs of children a swarmed her for hugs and autographed pictures. Eventually, the Gar-Field High School and Penn State University graduate was able to sit down at a table and sign pictures for the dozens of children standing in line.
Like she did at many other Virginia schools—including Fred Lynn Middle School earlier this month—Wheeler delivered a positive message that included being yourself, not stereotyping people and doing something positive no matter how small it may be.
After Wheeler spoke and took questions for an hour, those who had met her and received autographs were practically skipping down the hall with delight.
Elizabeth Monzon, 11, said Wheeler's talk was "really interesting." Monzon said she was surprised to hear that Wheeler—a self-admitted tomboy—tried out for the U.S. Women's National Ice Hockey team and is a graduate of the Air Force ROTC program.
"I didn't expect all of this," Monzon said. "It was really surprising to hear her express herself in many ways."
Elise Rasmussen, 11, said Monday's experience was "really cool and really inspiring." She said her favorite part of Wheeler's speech is when she talked about being an individual no matter how much you stand out to other people.
Sarah Ervin, 11, said she plans on being nicer to people and to not criticize them as much.
Before coming out to speak to the children, Wheeler sat in the assistant principal's office telling stories about her life after winning Miss Virginia this summer. Wheeler has averaged 3,000 miles a month in trips across Virginia and Washington D.C., stopping to speak at prisons, schools and children's hospitals.
At one school, she received a wristband from a girl whose sister had recently died—a precious gift according to one of the girl's friends. Wheeler also experienced firsthand the love and admiration of terminally ill children.
"[There were] two little girls with no hair that were just beaming, they were so excited," Wheeler said of her trip to Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. "I got to crown them. They were making these excited faces and wanted me to stay and have a slumber party."
In October, Wheeler finished filming a reality show involving the 52 Miss America contestants called Countdown to the Crown. The show will air Jan. 2, 9, 16 and 23 on TLC. The pageant finale airs live Jan. 24 on TLC.
Thanks to the show, viewers have an influence on who makes it to the finals. America's top top four choices from Jan. 23's voting window will be automatically part of the 15 finalists determined by a separate panel of judges.
With the pageant competition just weeks away, Wheeler said she's trying to stay calm. She already knows whether she's eligible to be voted for by the public but is forbidden to release the information per the contest rules.
Finalist or not, Wheeler is proud of her accomplishments and the chance to positively influence people's lives as the reigning Miss Virginia.
"I will be driving down the road, all exhausted and I will think in my head, 'Oh my God, I am going to Miss America,'" Wheeler said. "They say you are more likely to have a son in the Super Bowl then have a daughter on the Miss America stage. It's incredibly prestigious just to make it this far."