2010-09-10 / Neighbors

Teen beauty queen remains focused on helping foster children

By Michelle Knight

FAMILY SUPPORT—Dedria Brunett, center left, 2010 Miss Teen California International, spread the word across the state about her crusade to equip children living in foster care with child-friendly luggage as opposed to garbage bags. The 17-year-old Adolfo Camarillo High School graduate is joined by her brother Hunter, 9; mother, Tonya Brunett; father, Jim; sister Jaden, 7; and cousins Michael Lopez and Megan Lopez. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers FAMILY SUPPORT—Dedria Brunett, center left, 2010 Miss Teen California International, spread the word across the state about her crusade to equip children living in foster care with child-friendly luggage as opposed to garbage bags. The 17-year-old Adolfo Camarillo High School graduate is joined by her brother Hunter, 9; mother, Tonya Brunett; father, Jim; sister Jaden, 7; and cousins Michael Lopez and Megan Lopez. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers When she was crowned Miss Teen California International a year ago, Dedria Brunett didn’t cry in front of the audience. She allowed the tears to flow later, in private with her family.

“I knew that this would open a multitude of doors and that my life had changed,” said the 17- year-old Camarillo resident recently.

On Sept. 11 Dedria will crown Miss Teen California International 2011 in Downey.

Some in the audience may have interpreted the absence of tears from Dedria as a lack of emotion or gratitude, but that isn’t the case. Dedria learned at an early age that tears show weakness—a dangerous state for a child with her background.

Before Tonya and Jim Brunett adopted 6-yearold Dedria, she’d lived in foster care and group homes after suffering years of abuse and neglect at the hands of her biological mother. Sometimes, in order to eat, she had to scavenge for food in trash cans.

Dedria arrived at the Brunett home lugging her few possessions in a white garbage bag—a humiliation that’s influenced her course in life.

At age 15, Dedria formed a nonprofit, Luggage of Love, to raise money to buy suitcases for children living in shelters and in foster care. She was inspired by a local beauty pageant that requires contestants to endorse a community service; she saw it as a way to promote her cause. A few weeks after Dedria was named first runner-up in the 2009 Miss Teen Gold Coast International, the winner stepped down, and Dedria was asked to wear the crown and represent Ventura County.

Life has been a whirlwind since. Dedria was named 2009 Youth Volunteer of the Year by the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce. She’s donated the $1,000 award and all the pageant money she’s earned to Luggage of Love.

She’s spoken to service groups and other organizations about her cause; she’s appeared at special events and fundraisers locally and around the state. Dedria’s story has appeared on multiple television stations since spring.

In July, Dedria participated in Miss Teen International in Chicago, which gave her the chance to speak about Luggage of Love to an audience worldwide. Dedria placed in the top 10.

“I’m obviously always going to have Luggage of Love—it’s a part of my life,” Dedria said.

Also in July, Dedria spoke to children at Camp to Belong in Orange County, which for five days unites siblings who live in separate foster or adoptive homes. She let the campers wear her sash and crown.

Cindy Roe, executive director of the nonprofit camp, said Dedria was a big hit with the 53 campers, whose ages range from 7 to 18. When Dedria spoke about living in group homes and emergency shelters, the campers could relate to her feelings because they’re going through similar experiences.

“They loved her,” Roe said. “I’ve been doing this for some years, and I’m impressed with her maturity, wisdom and honesty, and she’s (just) 17.”

Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, Dedria ate meals and stayed overnight with the campers, handing out dozens of suitcases.

“You have a voice and you have a choice; even if it doesn’t seem that way, you do,” Dedria told the youngsters.

Marion Whitte, founder of the Angel Heart Foundation, a child advocacy nonprofit based in Ventura, asked Dedria to talk to 25 Ventura County foster children ages 6 to 10 last month.

Wearing her crown and sash over casual clothes, Dedria sat on the floor with children in her lap and surrounding her while she read them a story.

“She just related to the kids, because I know she looks at these kids and sees herself,” said Whitte. Dedria’s poise, confidence and achievements no doubt showed the children what’s possible in their own lives, Whitte added.

Tonya Brunett said her daughter brings hope to children who might otherwise feel hopeless.

Although some children may think Dedria’s got it made, she’s open about the consequences she continues to face as a result of the trauma she experienced early in life, Brunett said.

Born to a mother on drugs, Dedria has “startle reflex” and copes by taking medication. She also sees a psychiatrist and psychologist regularly.

“She doesn’t hide who she was—that’s the cool thing about it,” her mom said.

Giving a suitcase, something most people take for granted, to a child who’s experienced abuse or neglect is therapy for Dedria, Brunett said.

“I call it a new beginning,” Dedria said, “one piece of luggage at a time.”

Dedria graduated from Adolfo Camarillo High School in June. She’ll attend community college in Ventura County until next fall, when she plans to transfer to a university to study communications.

In the meantime, she wants to pursue acting and has signed up to audition for the reality show “America’s Next Top Model.”

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