By Julie Mettenburg
Kalilah Allen-Harris says that when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 14, she wished she had received more positive messages about the disease to help her through the challenges she faced early in her diagnosis.
Just under a decade later, as Miss Black USA 2007 and a JDRF celebrity advocate, she filmed the "You Can't Catch Diabetes From a Friend" video about living with and managing type 1 diabetes for JDRF's "Bag of Hope." The Bag of Hope goes out to children who have been newly diagnosed. Kalilah hopes her message will provide the encouragement she longed for, to help kids feel normal and gain resolve during what she calls an "emotionally strenuous" time.
Kalilah's passion to hlep young people with type 1 diabetes and to raise awareness for the disease helped earn her the title of Miss Black USA 2007. She spent her year in this role advocating for diabetes: meeting celebrities, traveling the country, and speaking out about her disease.
A medical student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Kalilah was studying to be an orthopedic surgeon (who works on bones and joints) when she won the crown. Just as diabetes has inspired her dreams, her medical pursuits were inspired by her experiences as a competitive cheerleader in her teens, when she battled injuries and broken bones.
Kalilah put her medical studies on hold to focus on her Miss Black USA duties. She ended her reign when Miss Black USA 2008 was crowned in Las Vegas on June 23. Read on to hear from Kalilah about the joys and challenges of her year and about her plans for the future.
Q. How did it feel when you heard your name announced as the winner of the Miss Black USA crown?
A. I was at peace just before my name was called because I realized that I could not do anything to control the outcome of the pageant at that point. Being named Miss Black USA 2007 felt like one of my many dreams in life was really coming true.
Q. Can you tell us what it means to you to have earned this title? In particular, it would be inspiring to learn more about your leadership role as Miss Black USA.
A. Earning this title meant that for a year I was honored with the privilege to represent women of color and women in general as I journeyed around the world to serve as an advocate for educating about diabetes and a positive self-image... I hope I was able to expose the women I met to the reality that we are not limited to being what the media portrays us to be. We are beautiful, talented, and expected to be successful women who can reach out to future generations to encourage them to be the same. Anything we want to accomplish is possible!
Q. The pageant took place in The Gambia, West Africa. Please share with us some of your impressions and experiences during your time there.
A. Being in The Gambia was an overall rewading experience. The people were so sweet and welcoming to us that it made me feel like I was right at home... There were peacocks that would jump up onto the balcony to provide visual delight almost daily. Also, being able to see James Island and many other historic sites firsthand was awesome.
Q. What were some of the highlights of your year as Miss Black USA?
A. One was going back to The Gambia to lay the foundation for the country's first water treatment plant. Because of that facility, more than 35,000 residents of the country will have access to clean water. Another highlight was cutting the ribbon on the Gambian nation's first medical supply and testing facility. Also, a memorable highlight was having the opportunity to meet and speak with both Tyler Perry and Stevie Wonder!
One of my favorite memories (and one of the funniest) is from a trip to New York City to have breakfast with the President and CEO of JDRF. I had an ear infection. Apparently, I was yelling during most of the breakfast, but I had no idea because I couldn't hear very well. Anyway, he left to make a call, and the publicist for the Miss Black USA organization tapped me on my shoulder and said, "Stop talking so loud!" to which I replied quite loudly, "What?"
Q. Can you talk about your experiences as a competitive cheerleader, and how they had an impact on your life?
A. Throughout high school, I was a competitive cheerleader at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery. We won the state title in 2000 when I was a sophomore. Last time I visted, our squad's state championship picture was still on display in the lunch room! Being a competitive cheerleader helped me realize the value of being a hard worker. It also taught me that consistency and dedication truly pays off. I was able to see it daily in the development of my skills and technique... Cheerleading taught me to work harder toward all my goals, to remain positive, and to know that difficult tasks could be tackled little by little. With this approach, the desired end result is always within reach.
Q. What inspired you to become involved in pageants? Which was the first pageant you competed in?
A. Opportunities to win scholarship money and meet young women who are doing positive things for their communities inspired me. My very first pageant was the Montgomery (Alabama) County Junior Miss Pageant in November 2001. It was my senior year in high school and I placed first runner-up.
Q. What would you tell a young person who has just been diagnosed with diabetes?
A. I would tell him or her to become educated. No one is better at knowing how your body is affected than you. Make sure to take notes and pay close attention to how your body is responding to treatment to find a good, healthy balance. There's nothing to be ashamed of, and as long as the proper steps are taken to manage the disease, you can maintain a normal and healthy lifestyle. We all have a story that helps us find our purpose and exactly who we are meant to be in life. Everyone's story is different. That's what makes us all so beautiful and unique.
Q. What's next?!
A. I have always desired to become part of the entertainment industry through acting, so I am currently pursuing my dream. I am working on a way to pursue both medical school and acting simultaneously. I'm trying to work out the kinks so it can run smoothly in the fall!
This article was published in the Summer 2008 issue of Countdown for Kids.