By the time she told her secret at age 11, Kora Liegh Russell had endured four years of sexual abuse.
When she finally confided in her brother about what had been happening the one thing she wanted most in the world was a dog, the 18-year-old Bay Roberts native recalled.
She got her wish on Christmas day, 2003 — just months after disclosing the abuse. “(My dog) helped comfort me. It’s a strange thing, but he bought that little bit of happiness to my life at that point; just having that little puppy to take care of.”
Had someone told Russell years ago she’d not only enter, but win a scholastic competition, she would have thought that an impossible feat.
She said she was shocked “for the longest time” after being crowned Miss Teen Achievement Newfoundland and Labrador Oct. 17.
“I never ever thought I would win. I’m still shocked today really to see that I achieved something so big.”
The first year Memorial University student said the pageant has opened many doors for her.
She is intent on helping other people who have gone through traumatic events in their lives realize there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s important for people to know that, in order to move on, they need to talk about their experiences with someone they trust, she said.
“If I hadn’t told I wouldn’t be who I am today and I may have taken the wrong path and may not have been as successful as I am now.”
Miss Teen Achievement wasn’t Russell’s first pageant. In May she placed second-runner-up in the Avalon Achievement Competition and won the pageant’s academic excellence award as well as the competitive spirit award.
Russell said she was surprised when Miss Teen Achievement co-directors Joanne March and Kathy Dicks-Peyton contacted her and encouraged her to enter the competition.
While stage performance is taken into consideration by the judges, the pageant is about rewarding students with educational scholarships for excelling academically, living healthy lives and contributing to their community through volunteer activities.
Touted as a not-for-profit scholarship program, since its inception in 2006, Miss Teen Achievement has awarded more than $40,000 in scholarships. Former title winners have gone on to win more than $300,000 in educational scholarships.
Dicks-Peyton says the organization is also about giving back to the community.
“We have fundraised for the Kids Eat Smart Foundation, Heart and Stroke Foundation, and most recently raised over $6,000 for the Children’s Wish Foundation,” she said.
As Miss Teen Achievement Newfoundland and Labrador, Russell has become a role model and a voice for young people. She travels throughout the province speaking at various festivals and community fundraisers.
“Since winning the title, I’ve gained confidence in speaking to others. I’m learning social skills, how to network and I’m also learning about a lot of great organizations and people that I wouldn’t have known beforehand,” she said.
Russell is a member of Memorial’s Responsibility, Action and Development: High School Outreach Champions (RADHOC).
Established in 2008, the group advocates for social justice and global citizenship by sharing their views with high school students throughout the province.
“I believe that if we all come together as one, we can change the world,” Russell says.
She is also concentrating on changing one life at a time, much closer to home.
Russell said she’s not ashamed of her past. She realizes the abuse was not her fault and it has made her who she is today. “I believe that young girls need to know that if (sexual abuse) happens… it can either tear you down or make you stronger. Choosing the right path in life and making the right decisions is not always easy, but it’s something that’s possible and you can come out of it and you will be a stronger person.”
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