Laura Kaeppeler didn't think she was smart enough to become a lawyer.
However, she learned otherwise about herself while participating in the Miss America scholarship program. She won the title in 2012 and plans to use her $50,000 scholarship to attend law school with a career goal of practicing family law.
"I never saw my possibilities outside my small town," said Kaeppeler, 25, from Kenosha, Wis. "But Miss America changed my life. I've traveled throughout the United States and internationally. I've really seen the diversity of others, the different cultures, places and ways of life."
Kaeppeler - who crowned a new Miss America in January - made her first trip to York to be the keynote speaker at the 10th annual Cornerstone Award Dinner held Thursday at the Yorktowne Hotel in York City.
She talked about her life's journey from experiencing a parent going to prison to becoming Miss America.
Prior to the event, Kaeppeler said she is continuing her Miss America platform work of advocating for children with incarcerated parents. She has worked with various programs, including Big Brothers Big Sisters and Prison Fellowship Ministries. She is a spokeswoman for several mentoring programs serving at-risk youth.
Kaeppeler said she was 17 when her father, an investment banker, began serving an 18-month prison sentence for embezzlement. She said her family struggled financially and received help from social services and their church.
"I understand what it means to have a parent in prison, to go to visit them, to go through the shame and embarrassment of people knowing," Kaeppeler said. "And I know how important it is to have people and organizations in the community who give their time, talent and energy to help you get through it."
A singer who also plays piano, Kaeppeler received a bachelor's degree in music from Carthage College in Kenosha.
Kaeppeler said the lessons she's learned from participating in the Miss America program will help her to continue succeeding in life.
"Being Miss America is a year of service, a unique experience," she said. "It pushes you to go beyond your limits, to be confident, to serve, to (appreciate) your skills, to know you're smart enough to reach your goals."
- Eyana McMillan can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.