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01-14-12: Puyallup High graduate competes for Miss America
01-14-12: Puyallup High graduate competes for Miss America

Brittney Henry will walk into the national spotlight in January when she represents Washington at the 2012 Miss America pageant in Las Vegas.

Since being crowned Miss Washington in July, the 2005 Puyallup High School graduate has spent time reflecting on her life growing up in Edgewood and the people who have helped her develop into the person she is today.

People like her fourth-grade orchestra teacher, Cynthia Iverson.

Henry hasn’t spoken with Iverson in years, but she thinks of her often because of the “huge impact” she had on developing her love of music.

“I wanted to play in the orchestra in fourth grade, only my mom couldn’t afford to buy me a violin,” Henry said. “I went to orchestra class anyway, and Mrs. Iverson gave me one of the extra violins in her closet. I used that same violin all the way until ninth grade.”

Iverson, who teaches elementary and junior high orchestra this year at Edgemont Junior High, was moved to hear about the influence she had on a student’s life so many years ago.

“I can remember her sweet little face in fourth grade,” Iverson said. “She was the only one who came to class without an instrument. I said ‘honey, can you get an instrument?’ She said, ‘I don’t think so.’ That’s when I gave her one of the extra violins.”

After a long pause, Iverson added, “You just never know if that might be the one person where the instrument really makes a difference in their life.”

Henry continued to study violin after moving from Northwood Elementary to Edgemont Junior High, where orchestra teacher Catherine Johnson, who retired last June, formed an Edgemont Fiddlers group and taught Henry and other students how to fiddle.

“Mrs. Johnson is also special to me,” Henry said, “because she recognized me in a way no one else did during a difficult time in my life. She helped me to feel validated and special.”

Growing up in Edgewood

Henry grew up in a low-income family. Her mother raised her and her two sisters as a single parent from the time Henry was six years old.

Her father suffered from alcohol and drug addiction, was incarcerated six times during her childhood, and died two years ago of a drug overdose after his release from jail.

As a teen, Henry said she helped her mother make ends meet by acting as “a second mom” when her mother was away at work and her younger sister needed care.

Henry herself worked as a janitor at a mobile home park — a job she said she was too embarrassed to tell her friends about. She later worked in the snack bar at Tiffany’s Skating Rink and at a local clothing store.

The idea of competing in a beauty pageant some day, she said, never entered her mind.

Henry moved 17 times between kindergarten and her senior year, but her mother always kept her enrolled in the Puyallup School District “because she knew the strong family values here.”

Mentors along the way

The young musician continued to play violin in the Puyallup High orchestra and practice her fiddling, which she will use during the talent portion of the Miss America contest on January 14. Henry plans to perform a Celtic-style musical selection that combines fiddling and dance.

In the audience will be her mother and sisters, her high school sweetheart who is now her fiancé, as well as another one of her mentors, Puyallup resident and close family friend, Lisa Ballard.

Ballard has spent years as a parent volunteer at Puyallup High School. Over the years she has helped coach the baton twirlers and dance and cheer teams, as well as helped with band and an English study skills class.

She has also volunteered for years with the school’s Daffodil program and in recent years has served as its coordinator. Each year, she invites former Puyallup High Daffodil contestants, as well as Henry, to mentor the aspiring princesses.

Last month, Henry helped coach this year’s eight nominees. She helped them polish their interview skills and posture and provided tips on how to battle nerves.

“She is really easy to talk to,” Daffodil nominee Aly Stockslager said during a rehearsal. “She understands what we are going through because she has been through this.”

Ballard met Henry in the teen’s sophomore year of high school after the school nurse asked if she could help mentor the girl.

Henry had fallen behind in school after a month-long hospitalization and three-week recovery from orthostatic hypotension — a form of hypotension in which a person’s blood pressure suddenly falls when the individual stands up or stretches.

“I saw that what she really needed was to build her confidence,” Ballard said.

Ballard encouraged her to try out for the dance and cheer teams. Henry made both teams and was a dance lead at competition.

When it came time for seniors to apply for college, Ballard said she asked Henry, ‘Where are you going to college?’ She said, ‘College is for rich girls.’ I said, ‘No, college is for you.’”

After numerous rejection letters, Henry was accepted and given a two-year scholarship to California State University, Sacramento.

Repeat pageant winner

During her second year of college, as her award money was running out, Henry saw a poster on campus advertising a way to earn scholarships by competing in the Miss America pageant program.

Henry competed in and won the Miss Sacramento County pageant three years ago and went on to claim the Miss Southland (Southern California pageant) title a year later.

She was fourth runner-up for Miss California, and then returned to Washington where she won Miss Columbia Basin in 2010 and Miss Eastside earlier this year. Both state pageants are open to contestants who live anywhere in Washington.

Ballard helped by coaching Henry with her choreography and providing her with evening gowns and other attire to wear on stage.

Johnson, her junior high orchestra teacher, let Henry borrow her electric violin to fiddle with at two of the California pageants.

“I was glad when I could be of some small help to her in her quest,” Johnson said. “I am so very proud of all that she has accomplished and am especially proud that she stayed with the fiddling and chose to use her talent at it in such a positive and creative way.”

Henry graduated from college in January, 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in Intercultural/International Communication and Organizational Communication. After graduation, she moved back to Edgewood.

Puyallup homecoming

Several of her former teachers attended her homecoming celebration in August at the Liberty Theatre after she won the Miss Washington title.

“Brittney was always a hard worker and a fine violinist,” said her high school orchestra director, Todd Giltner. “She is quite passionate about what she believes to be right.”

Brooks Hazen, her ninth-grade Washington state history teacher at Edgemont Junior High, added, “What I remember most about her is that she was passionate about orchestra and extremely friendly to students and staff. Now that I have read her story, understanding the things that were going on in her life at that time, I am so impressed by her desire to be the very best at whatever she sets her mind to.”

Her mother, Kellee Henry, refers to her daughter’s teachers throughout elementary, junior high, and high school, as “great leaders and great mentors.”
Since being crowned Miss Washington, Henry’s appearances have included judging the Bite of Seattle, appearing at Zoobilee in Tacoma, and flying to Florida to support the Miss America Outstanding Teen Pageant.

The Edgewood City Council proclaimed July 26 Brittney Henry Day, and the Puyallup City Council issued a similar proclamation for October 4.

She was also selected as the Grand Marshal of this year’s Puyallup Rodeo Parade and opened one of the rodeos by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the violin.

Henry’s platform is to promote higher education for low-income students. She serves as the social media coordinator with the eastern Washington-based Northwest Learning Achievement group, a college outreach program for under-represented students.

While the Miss America pageant is in her immediate future, Henry said she plans to attend the University of Washington to earn a master’s degree in secondary education.

“Compassionate teachers were the ones who made a significant impact on my personal journey,” she said. “I would like to be the same for other students.”