What I've Learned - Extended Version
From a conversation with Pat McDonnell and Ed Cohen Oct. 18, 2006. Benitez-Thompson, 28, is the 2002 Miss Nevada and third runner-up at that year's Miss America competition. A 2001 Nevada political science alumna, Benitez is an adoption recruitment specialist for Washoe County.
Teresa Benitez delivered a message about acceptance and human rights during the Miss America program in Atlantic City, N.J. The 2001 University of Nevada, Reno graduate won the Miss Nevada competition July 13, 2002 in Mesquite.
Benitez, then a 24-year-old Reno resident, had been an advocate for low-income women and children in the state since 1996, when she co-founded the Nevada Empowered Women’s Project. She graduated from Nevada August 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
She performed a monologue at the competition based on Dennis Shepherd’s statement in court during the trial of those who murdered his son, Matthew, in a 1998 hate crime in Wyoming.
I’m 5-foot-3. I’m the brown girl and you don’t see a Miss America that’s got a last name like Benitez. So I didn’t think of myself physically as someone who could compete in a pageant.
There hasn’t been a Latin Miss America yet. I’m crossing my fingers for one.
If I could have earned that $50,000 (in competition money from the 2002 Miss America pageant) without getting into a swimsuit, I would have. But was there any other way for me to earn that much scholarship money and get a national audience for initiatives that were important to me? I am fine with that compromise, yes.
Why is it that more young women would rather go on MTV, on Real World, and be on videotape 24 hours a day getting drunk and making out with random people as opposed to going on national television when you’re winning scholarships?
A lot of young people want to be on television and famous for all the wrong reasons. I think Miss America is too tame for our generation. It’s too boring to support a community service and to want to raise money.
It’s a really unique camaraderie because for that year you are the only girls who will know what it’s like to be under the pressure of preparing to be Miss America. You spend all day together rehearsing. You are with each other for 20 days before you go on television to compete. You’re dead tired together, you’re cranky together, you cry together and you’re happy together. It’s like a football team, but with lipstick and high heels.
I was working for a nonprofit organization called Junior Achievement of Northern Nevada. The director was heading out of the Miss Reno-Miss Sparks pageants and he’d been involved with the Miss America program for years. One day he said there was a meeting for $1,000 in scholarships and I should come and check it out.
I was desperately looking for money so I could study at the University. I went to the meeting and there were about five other girls there and they all looked very nervous and scared to death. I didn’t understand why until the presenter started talking. She explained there was going to be an interview portion and they’re looking for someone who’s involved in community service. She mentioned something about a swimsuit and if you become Miss Reno or Miss Sparks, you get to compete at Miss Nevada. At that point I was like, “What?”
It’s the largest source of scholarships for women in the world. The Miss America organization distributes more than $40 million dollars every year in scholarships, and it’s really neat because whether you are a girl in Elko, Nevada, or Reno or Las Vegas, you have access to the same scholarship opportunities that anybody else would.
I would never encourage my daughter (Benitez-Thompson did not have a child of her own as of spring 2007) to be in pageants. I think there is a real difference between being a young woman and wanting to earn scholarship money for who you are as opposed to being a child who is trying to become what someone else wants you to be.
Your first obligation is to prepare to represent your state at the Miss America pageant. Once I finished that, I came home and started a school tour throughout that year. One fifth grader asked, “Are you a model for Victoria’s Secret?” I was like, “No, next.”
I was at Battle Mountain Middle School and their school is really small, so I couldn’t do an all-school assembly because we had to use the library and we could only fit the girls in the room. As I was leaving, one of the boys ran up to me and said, “We know we didn’t get to hear you speak today, but we wrote down all of our names and numbers so you can call us if you want to.” He handed me an eight-by-11 piece of paper with every boy's name, I’m sure, in Battle Mountain who was in seventh grade that year. Their names and their numbers. I still have that and I thought that was so funny.
I’m not really one to give up. If you try something once and you don’t make it, work harder and learn from your mistakes. Come back. I think that’s something that everyone should use as a philosophy throughout life.
Some of the most valuable lessons I picked up along the way came specifically from debating. I was in speech and debate at McQueen High School In Reno, and the first time I showed up to try a debate competition I was awful. I didn’t make much sense, but I really liked the experience. I stuck with it through all four years and ended up a state champion my junior year. If I’d given up after the first time I tried I never would have had the wealth of experience that came with being a debater.
I work with kids in foster care to find adoptive homes. If I don’t believe that the child deserves a home and that there’s a family out there for them, if I don’t believe that, there is no reason why anyone else should believe that child deserves a home.
If you believe in something, you just have to have the conviction to stand up and say so. If you believe in yourself, you stand up and fight for yourself. Of course, that leaves it open for people to say whatever their heart wants is really right, and I hope it’s only good things. Maybe that’s where I am still naïve.
Any social worker, but especially social workers in the child welfare field, have wings on their back, as far as I’m concerned. The stuff they deal with every day can be so ugly and so hard, and yet they show up every day and work for that child.
We’ve been running the Open Arms show on the Washoe County public access television channel (WCTV-17), where we feature kids who are in need of adoptive homes. It’s not something that social workers by nature are trained to do, so that’s one way in which my background really lends itself nicely to this job.
Adoption works. I’ve seen how adoption and foster care can change children’s lives. We need families to step up to the plate and open their homes for these kids. You’re never more than a phone call away from being a family for a child.
My husband, Jeff Thompson (chief meteorologist for KRNV-TV in Reno and a graduate student in atmospheric sciences at the University), interviewed me when he was a reporter and a weekend weather guy for Channel 4. They said, “Hey we've got this press release about the new Miss Nevada. Go out and interview her.” I saw him and I thought he was so cute.
This is the real difference between guys and girls because I thought I was really letting him know, “I think you’re a cute guy.” This is not like me. I did not have my first boyfriend until I was in college. I was not a serial dater or anything. He seemed so nice and he had these nice blue eyes. I asked, “Where are you from?” All these questions and I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “If you need anyone to show you around Reno because you’re new to the area….” Six months later I asked him out. It took two glasses of wine, but I sent him an e-mail.
Boys are different. They eat a lot. I grew up with three sisters. I didn’t know one person could spend so much time watching football. When we got married, I’d make dinner and give myself a little serving and I give him a little serving. He’d eat that and then he would eat everything else in a crock pot and I’m saying, “where does all that food go?”
Our chihuahua is Pablo, and Petunia or “Tooney” was our family dog for 14 years (she died). I just love chihuahuas. They are good little personalities. Big dogs are just too furry for me.
My mom was a waitress here in Nevada, and it can be really hard to support three girls economically on the tips that you’re making as a waitress.
Many times I would watch my mom sit there and be berated by a customer because the steak wasn’t cooked right. She would just smile and tell them that’s not a problem. I really carry that with me that people can be really not nice, but that doesn’t mean that you just don’t smile and say, “Well we can make this right.” I can make this right and we will move forward.
My sister had a baby on my 16th birthday. I think the way that has impacted me is I know if I could tell every young girl, especially Latinas, if you really want a child, you have to love that child enough to wait until it’s the right time in your life to have a baby. I cannot tell you how many young girls I see having babies so young in their lives. They are doing a disservice to that child. Wait until you’re able to care for them and provide them everything you can in the world.
That’s not to say anyone who’s done that is wrong. But so many of our young women who want babies are looking for a need to fill within themselves. That’s not the reason why you have kids. You have children because it’s your time in life when you’re ready. It’s a really unselfish act to say, “I’m ready to put myself second and this child is going to be first.”
I was suspended a couple of times in elementary school for fighting with boys. In the sixth grade, the boys were playing softball and I wanted to play. They said, “No, you can’t play because you’re a girl.” This boy and I got into a shoving match and subsequently ended up with our little fists throwing punches at each other. I got in trouble for that.
I think being a female policy-maker in the state, you just have to be tough as nails. The women that we have serving right now, they didn’t get where they were without a really hard fight.
I think if I’m doing the job right, people wouldn’t know my party affiliation right off the bat, or at least the reputation of my party affiliation wouldn’t proceed me. I think a good policy maker is one who really puts politics aside and looks at policy as “is this policy going to serve a good function… is this a good piece of legislation…is it really going to help my constituency?”
I wrote letters to my great grandmother when she was living because my mother said you should write letters to your grandmother. I have those letters, and she’s been gone so long. I think it gives you a good sense of perspective and it’s something, looking to my future, I could share with my kids when they’re older.