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Locals take meaningful platforms to Miss SD pageant

Miss South Dakota’s 2017 Outstanding Teen Elizabeth Nesland crowns 2018 Miss Mitchell’s Outstanding Teen McKenzie Norton, center, during the Miss Mitchell pageant on Feb. 17 at the Mitchell School District Performing Arts Center. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 2
Chesney Garnos, right, hugs Mitchell’s Outstanding Teen McKenzie Norton after Garnos was crowned Miss Mitchell 2018 during the Miss Mitchell pageant on Feb. 17 at the Mitchell School District Performing Arts Center. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 2

After losing a second friend to suicide in the summer of 2016, Chesney Garnos mourned and searched for answers within.

One year later, Garnos' hardship led to a commitment to be the change that could save a life through creating Break the Chains, an organization she launched through social media, aimed at breaking down the stigmas surrounding mental illness, bullying and suicide.

The Presho native was in the middle of her senior year at the University of South Dakota when she launched her organization, which she credits for inspiring her to enter the Miss Mitchell Pageant.

"Having lost three friends to suicide and literally pulling a gun out of my friend's hand to prevent one, I know from experience how serious suicide is," Garnos said.

Garnos, along with Mitchell's McKenzie Norton competing in the teen division, will be in the Miss South Dakota Pageant competition, which begins today in Hot Springs.

As her organization rapidly grew, catching the eyes of many fellow students and teenagers, Garnos received an 'overwhelming' amount of suggestions about taking her platform to the Miss America Organization.

"I saw the pageant as an opportunity to reach more kids and people struggling with depression or mental illness," said the 22-year-old Garnos, who won the Miss Mitchell competition in February. "I had a lot of friends and people reaching out to me, insisting I take my platform to the Miss America Organization and enter the Miss Mitchell pageant."

"I was nervous for my first pageant, but It was such an eye-opening experience that has helped me gain better public speaking skills and so many valuable life lessons," Garnos said.

Although she is a Presho native, Garnos' mother was raised in Mitchell, which also influenced her decision to enter the Miss Mitchell Pageant. She said her father Cooper's battle with cancer in 2016 made her re-evaluate the way she handled her life.

"I started to not care about anything, even my own health and body," she said. "I understood what depression really felt like when I was going through that tough time, and it's helped me relate to those who are going through similar situations."

Garnos' strength and triumph have helped her father reach remission. He is now an ambassador and public speaker for Break the Chains, where he uses his battle with cancer to motivate people to overcome obstacles.

Garnos said her organization has continued to rapidly grow, as she will be meeting with United Way of Mitchell and working on grants to continue her outreach. Professionally, she works for U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds in Pierre.

"God has a purpose for me to help the world, and God opened all of this up for me," she said.

Former 2017 Miss South Dakota Tessa Dee, a Mitchell native, organized the first Miss Mitchell Pageant in more than 35 years, which she is "grateful" for doing to give young ladies the same opportunity she had with the Miss America Organization.

"Tessa has been instrumental for all of the aspiring Miss South Dakota contestants, and we're very blessed to have her represent our state so well," Garnos said.

The 2018 Miss South Dakota will be announced on Saturday in Hot Springs, advancing the winner to the national stage to compete to become Miss America. The national pageant will be held Sept. 9 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

"If I were to win Miss South Dakota, I would be able to reach even more audiences and raise suicide awareness for the second leading cause of death in South Dakota for people ages 10 to 24, as well as the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 in the nation," Garnos said.

Norton willing to take on risks

McKenzie Norton's father has inspired her to take risks: after all, he risked his life every time he threw overalls on and painted his face to fight bulls.

Norton grew up watching her father, Jerry Norton, entertain crowds across the nation as a famous rodeo clown. Now it's her turn to get a chance at performing on the national stage, as she will compete in Miss South Dakota's Outstanding Teen Pageant Thursday through Saturday in Hot Springs.

"When I would watch my dad fight bulls, he inspired me to not be afraid of doing something I love," Norton said. "From beginning my career as a pole vaulter to entering my first pageant, I learned how to take risks and how to take chances from my father."

Norton, an incoming senior at Mitchell High School, competes on the speech and debate team, pole vaults for the track and field team and is currently a sophomore status college student at Dakota Wesleyan University through the bridge program partnership with MHS.

Norton said being involved in sports and other extracurricular activities is an advantage when it comes to competing in the pageants.

"To be a good pole-vaulter, you have to practice every day and be your best in order to compete at the highest level," she said. "Being involved in speech and debate has improved my interpersonal and speaking skills, which sets me apart from other contestants."

On Feb. 17, Norton entered her first pageant, impressing the judges by putting the diverse skill set she's gained on display and walking away as the 2018 Miss Mitchell Outstanding Teen.

"I didn't go in with the mindset of winning; I just wanted to be myself and show what I can offer Mitchell, as well as the state of South Dakota and the world," Norton said.

On Thursday, she will begin her quest to become Miss South Dakota Outstanding Teen, as the two preliminary rounds will wrap up on Friday in Hot Springs. Eight finalists will move on to the 2018 Miss South Dakota Outstanding Teen, which will be announced on Saturday evening. The winner will represent South Dakota in the national pageant on July 28 in Orlando, Florida.

Earlier this year, Norton spoke to children in classrooms at Mitchell Elementary schools, hoping to make a difference in the lives of kids who have been bullied through her YouMatter Project.

"I talk to kids in elementary schools about the seriousness of bullying and how the actions they make today will affect their tomorrow," Norton said. "I was bullied as a kid, that's why I chose this as my platform, and I'm very proud to make a difference for kids."

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