by Carl Dunn & Lisa Nees
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE MISS AMERICA ORGANIZATION
Heather French is Miss America 2000. She attended the University of Cincinnati, where she earned her Bachelor of Science Degree in Fashion Design, and is now working toward a Master's Degree in Fashion Design & Illustration. Heather has been spending her year of service in the halls of Congress and visiting notable organizations to increase funding and awareness for America's homeless veterans. Here she takes a moment from her schedule to speak with Pageantry.
CD: The "platform" is truly a beacon of the Miss America Organization. How important do you feel the "platform" is in the development of character?
HF: Extremely important. I wouldn't be Miss America today if it weren't for my passion and commitment to homeless veterans. It's important for each contestant to feel the same drive and energy toward her issue, because you're working day in and day out, seven days a week. I only get one day off a month. Every day I'm either working with veteran's groups, lobbying legislatures, or motivating communities to support their veterans. So every day I'm reminded of who I am, why I'm here, and that the title of Miss America is not about Heather French, but it's about 25 million veterans -- somewhere out there in the country -- who need help and who need a voice. You finally realize there's so much more to life than that moment when you're crowned Miss America, because that moment ends so quickly, yet the job starts literally five seconds after you're lead off the stage. As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, through the years I've learned persistence, perseverance, and most of all, caring.
CD: As you just mentioned, you're the daughter of a Vietnam veteran yourself. How did your upbringing affect who you are today?
HF: It's almost everything I am. When I was 4 years old, my father started taking me into the Cincinnati VA Hospital. At that time, there was a long waiting period. Now, thank goodness, there's no longer a huge delay, because they're evolving like the rest of us into a better health-care system. But at that time, it was a 4-6 hour wait. During that time my eyes were opened to such a wide variety of what our veterans were going through, because I saw men and women, like my dad, who were also struggling. I would wonder Why is that woman crying? Why is that man crying? Why can't they get help? And I never forgot that. Veterans organizations have just become ingrained into me. So the seed was planted at 4 years old because of my dad.
CD: How great a problem is our nation's homelessness, in regard to Vietnam veterans in particular?
HF: Right now Vietnam veterans make up the largest population of veterans. We have some WWII and Korean veterans who are homeless, but Vietnam veterans had such a hard time coming home. They never really felt welcomed, so their transition into civilian life was a little tougher than the other combat veterans from the other wars. We do have treatment for them now, but it's an issue of getting funding. Veterans make up one-third of the homeless population. That's roughly 275,000 men and women. Yes, women; there are about 10,000 women veterans that we know of right now who are homeless as well. So we started combatting a new issue this year with the female veterans. In fact, 14% of our armed forces are women, so in the future, we're going to see even more women come out and use the VA system which I really want them to do. I want them to feel just as welcome in there as the men; but, unfortunately, not all veteran programs at the VA have female-specific doctors and programs. However, these veterans have received some good press and awareness this year, and people, hopefully, are starting to know that this issue is a bigger problem than they had thought.
CD: Has your year of service made any improvement towards their plight?
HF: I've testified twice. The first time was in front of the Joint Session of Veteran's Health and Veteran's Benefits. That was a great day, because I wanted to get federal agencies like the VA to recognize community-based organizations, such as local shelters. These community-based organizations may receive federal funding, but they're not run by the government. Although the VA should provide their primary medical care, the VA needs to partner better with community-based organizations, so they can take a homeless veteran, get him or her medically healed, and then know where to send them for healing, housing, and possibly drug or alcohol-related problems.
The second time I testified was in front of the Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Committee (HUD). That was important, because they have the money; you can get as many bills passed as you want, but unless the Appropriations Committee supports that bill, it's just words. I wanted the Appropriations Committee to provide a quarter million dollars of technical assistance for the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans. Right now the National Coalition has 241 programs across the nation in about 43 states. Basically, I don't feel that our veterans should have to fight for funding.
I've also been working on a program called "Help for Homeless Veterans." This program gives permanent and very affordable housing to homeless veterans. The mortgage is a percentage of their pay, and we adjust it per veteran. One corporation came to me, Senco, which makes tools for the manufactured-housing industry. They asked, "How can we help you with your platform?" And I answered, "We need homes!" So we went to some manufactured-home builders, and for the next 18 months we will be able to provide one home, per month, to a homeless veteran and his or her family! And we provided our first home to a man named Donald Whitehead in Cincinnati, Ohio. He's a former navy officer, but he had to live apart from his family, because he couldn't afford a home in a decent area. Now, there's a room for each of his two kids! The home is so beautiful, and the ceremony was so moving. To hand keys to a man who now feels he can provide for his family -- I mean that changes lives. And for the next 18 months we'll be able to keep doing that. In fact, we'll keep doing this program, even after my year of service.
CD: Has there been a memorable event within the past year, aside from the above, that has had a major impact on your life that you would like to share with us?
HF: Yes, an event called Rolling Thunder. Two hundred fifty thousand Veteran bikers, who all ride Harleys, rode across the country, from all different areas, to Washington, D.C., which they've been doing for over 13 years. They meet in the morning at the Pentagon parking lot and demonstrate for our prisoner's of war and the missing in action. They believe that we should never leave our wounded behind, and there are thousands of men and women who are still missing in Vietnam. They invited my mom, father, and little brother, and we rode from the Pentagon parking lot up to the Capitol where they had already set up their display and where we talked about prisoners of war and other veteran issues. It was so emotional. I cried the whole way. My father was able to ride with me, and because there were so many of us, it took us four hours to parade through Washington, D.C. We also had a chance to screen veterans for Hepatitis C. There were 50,000 veterans with their families there, so it was the perfect time to do that. So we were able to really work on some good efforts plus pay our respects and remembrance to those men and women who have not come home.
CD: What impact has the Miss America Organization had in relation to your overall education?
HF: I would not have been able to graduate from college, as an undergraduate student, were it not for the scholarship. I came from a very low-income family and went to an out-of-state school. My fashion design program is a five-year program, and it's very expensive. You're buying supplies like #10 orange paint at $15 a tube, and it takes five tubes to finish one project. It's not like buying a textbook. I would have never been able to finish were it not for the scholarship that they provided to pay for my schooling.
CD: Do you have your Master's Degree yet, and do you still plan to complete your fashion-illustration textbook for students?
HF: I'm about 3 months shy of getting my Master's, and in the past couple of months I've pulled out my old outlines; it has been great to take a year break off of that, let me tell you. But then I pulled out my old outlines from the dusty pile and started working on the synopsis for each of the chapters.
CD: Once your year of service is complete, what do you think you're going to miss most?
HF: Well, one of the things that I'm very worried about is keeping veterans in the national spotlight. This year I've been able to do that as Miss America, but next year there's going to be a new Miss America. And although I'll be the Second Lady of Kentucky (after her marriage to Lt. Gov. Steve Henry of Kentucky this Oct. 27), it's still not going to be the same as being able to travel 20,000 miles a month and speak to millions of people every week. However, as Second Lady, veteran issues are going to be my #1 priority. Just because I'm not out there as Miss America 2000 doesn't mean that they've gone away.
CD: Can you describe what the Miss America Organization means to you and to the thousands of young women who compete?
HF: First of all, it's a chance to have a national voice on an issue of which you feel strongly and to hopefully make an impact in our country and in the lives of many others. Community service is first and foremost. Of course, competing also gives you a chance to finish college debt free. I know that sounds like a programmed answer, but I graduated with a Bachelor of Science and will be graduating with a Master's that is totally paid for. There are very few young women who can say that. The Miss America Organization gives women a chance to achieve the higher education that no other organization can do. Although only one young woman gets the chance to travel nationally across America, competing offers the chance of a lifetime. Miss America has the opportunity to speak to all the different faces of the nation, experience how the nation changes from state to state, and the opportunity to impact millions of people.
CD: Do you have any words of wisdom that you would like to impart to your successor or to any young woman who has the dream of becoming Miss America?
HF: Each Miss America is so different, and that's what's so beautiful about the program -- there are no shoes to fill. Each Miss America walks her own path, and they're very distinct paths. I really feel that every one of my future sisters should really look at her year and make a goal. She should ask herself "What do I want to accomplish this year?" For example, one of my goals was to be in the national press once a month, because I wanted people to know what Miss America is doing and for veterans to be in the spotlight. So far I have succeeded and gone over and above that goal. So here's my advice: make a list of things that you think you want to accomplish, set goals, and set out to reach them.
CD: Is there anything I haven't touched upon that you'd like to share?
HF: Just remember that when you give up the crown, that doesn't mean that the work stops. In my case, every day that there's one more veteran in need is one more day to work.
For more information on homeless veterans, or to find out how you can help, contact the Dept. of Veterans Affairs at (800) 827-1000, or visit www.va.gov.
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