Spring break is here, and I am enjoying a trip to Florida. We are visiting long-time military friends. Their daughter, Sydney (17), is currently preparing for the Miss Florida competition. I’ve watched this sweet girl grow up, and I am excited for her to share her story.

Here’s Sydney:

It is amazing how drastically your life can change in the blink of an eye, or the twist of a knee. Training level 10 gymnastics, I spent every possible moment in the gym. As a Hawaii state and regional level 8 vault champion, I dreamed of a college scholarship. When I tore my ACL during what seemed like a typical gymnastics practice, I was devastated.

Sydney Jalali Gymnastic Competition

I had no idea what God had in store for me. After months of physical therapy and ice packs, I traded in my leotards for high heels and hairspray. Each year at my high school, there is a pageant for junior girls. Knowing absolutely nothing about pageants, I decided to enter. On March 22, 2013, I won the title of Miss Creekside and from that moment, I was hooked.

Exactly one year later, on March 22, 2014, I won the title of Miss St. Augustine.

Sydney Jalali

This is a local title that allows me to compete in Miss Florida this June, but more importantly, spend a year of service promoting my platform. Service is an integral part of the Miss America Organization and any title holder involved in this organization knows her platform like the back of her hand. A platform is a non-profit organization that each contestant chooses to promote.

The platform I chose is Operation Gratitude.


Operation Gratitude is a non-profit organization based out of California that annually sends 100,000+ care packages filled with snacks, entertainment items and personal letters of appreciation to U.S. Service Members deployed in hostile regions. Packages are also sent to children left behind, as well as wounded warriors.All of this is done in order to lift morale, bring a smile to a service member’s face and express to our Armed Forces the appreciation and support of the American people.

I was eager to help, but unsure where to begin. As a high school student with little money, I had to get creative. I have always loved to write, so I decided to begin a letter-writing campaign.


The more I reached out to the community, the more encouraged I became when local elementary and middle schools welcomed me into their classrooms. It was eye-opening to see how many students were unfamiliar with the daily sacrifices made by military families. In speaking with them, I encouraged students to write letters, and expressed the importance of showing appreciation to our troops.

The students instantly engaged when I told them their letters would be read by real-life heroes. I am proud of the success of my first letter-writing campaign; I have sent three hundred letters to Operation Gratitude over a three month period.


I believe that this project has a profound impact on the community by encouraging our youth to have a deeper appreciation for our military and encouraging literacy and basic letter-writing skills. On a larger scale, three hundred men and women who selflessly put  their families on hold and their lives in danger received beautiful, hand-written letters of encouragement and thanks from local elementary and middle school students.

While I know reading these letters will bless a service member’s life, they have changed my life in more ways than I could have imagined. The dreams, struggles, and stories that these children pour out into their letters amaze me. Recently, a Lieutenant said of Operation Gratitude, “You provide the one thing the Army can’t provide- a reminder that the people at home still care.”

Pageantry has shaped me into an entirely different person, but not in the way society may think. I have never had a greater opportunity to share my faith daily. The aspect of pageantry that makes me the proudest is what goes on behind the scenes. At every pageant that I have competed in, before the curtains open, all of the girls circle up, hold hands, and have a group prayer.

As I compete in Miss Florida this June, I am immensely grateful. Although life has not always gone the way I may have planned it, I am  thankful for every twist, turn, and bump along the way.

To learn more about how you can send letters to deployed service members, visit www.operationgratitude.com/

If you are interested in learning more about the Miss America Organization, all of the opportunities it provides (it is the largest scholarship provider for women in the United States), or how to become a contestant, visit www.missamerica.org/






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