In 1993, I was a shy little six-year-old with missing front teeth and a lisp. As my mother put rollers in my hair the morning of the Little Miss Dorchester contest, she reminded me to do my best, speak loudly, and keep smiling.
I was nervous as I walked onstage. Then my little sister (my number one fan) yelled out my name in baby talk and I relaxed. After the contestants answered questions like: "What's your favorite subject in school?" and "What do you want to be when you grow up?" the judges convened to decide who would be the next Little Miss.
After what felt like days, they called out the results. Second runner-up: not me. First runner-up: not me. Winner: "Sonia Essaibi."
I couldn't believe it. The rest of the event was a blur of crowning, pinning the sash, hugs and pizza. My favorite prize was a hot pink bike that I rolled back home.
As a young adult, I am part of the contest again as the mistress of ceremonies, the one to interview all the girls. Thank God I'm not a judge - I wouldn't be able to handle picking just one of these very talented Dotonians.
Even after so many years, the contest remains the same. It's about celebrating the young girls of Dorchester. "This competition really shows that it's not all about looks, it's about who you are and how you want to represent Dorchester," said Laura Barkowski, who won in 2006.
Her older sister, Samantha, now 16 years old, participated when she was a first grader at St. Brendan's. She didn't win that year, but came back as a third grader in 2000 to try again. That time she came home with the crown. "I was very surprised, but I was so happy - I couldn't stop smiling."
Laura, who also tried once before she won in 2006, said that she felt more confident the second time around. "It didn't really matter if I lost again 'cause it was just really fun," she said. "And it's just so courageous to get up there and face the crowd."
Laura, now 11, remembers asking her big sister for advice before the big day. "I asked her, 'what should I do...should I tell about what sports I play or should I tell about school?' and she just said, 'be yourself.'"
My older sister, Annissa Essaibi-George, who became deeply involved in community events after attending a number of them with me in 1993, has been organizing the event for the past five years. She said it's a fun day for all the little girls.
"Every girl leaves the day's celebrations with a goodie bag and a gift," Essaibi-George said. State Rep. Marty Walsh donates the bicycle and helmet, and Sen. Jack Hart and City Council President Maureen Feeney donate money for each goodie bag. Local businesses like College Hype, the Blarney Stone, Fat Belly Deli, McKenna's Cafe, the Ice Creamsmith, the Sugar Bowl, the Avenue Grille, and a number of others also contribute generously.
In addition to the prizes, the girls get an opportunity to build confidence. "It gives them a chance to formally reflect on what they like about Dorchester," Essaibi-George said, "The contest isn't about looks, it's about coming out and enjoying yourself and practicing public speaking." Over the last few years, Essaibi-George has added a short essay component to the contest.
The current Little Miss Dorchester, Vany Cardoso, has had one fun-filled year. Cardoso, a third-grader at the Edward Everett Elementary School, looks back to the annual Senior Luncheon held at the JFK Library and Museum as a highlight. It was a special day for her because she got a chance to sing Happy Birthday to her mother in front of a crowd from Dorchester.
Other events she said she will remember are the neighborhood Christmas tree lightings, waving to everyone from the standard convertible during the Dorchester Day Parade, and having a special dinner with Maureen Feeney and family.
Just two weeks away from the contest, Cardoso says she is ready to pass on the title to another lucky girl. "I had a lot of opportunities with being Little Miss Dorchester," she said. "I should let it go and pass on the crown and let another girl have the same opportunities."
All Dorchester girls age seven to nine are encouraged to participate in this free event, May 3, at First Parish Church on Meetinghouse Hill. For more information, call 617-474-0797 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications are accepted through May 1.