At McDaniel College in Westminster this afternoon, Maryland's annual Junior Miss pageant will go on, but not quite as usual.
This year, just six high school seniors will be competing for what was once a coveted title, and the scholarship money handed out to winners will not be quite as bounteous as in previous years.
But the pageant might not have happened at all were it not for the efforts of Cheri Poklemba, a former pageant winner and mother of a pageant winner.
In six weeks, Poklemba, a water aerobics instructor, mother of three and Frederick County's Junior Miss 1973, formed a pageant committee, raised a few thousand dollars in scholarship prizes, found a venue and judges for the contest, and kept the Junior Miss program in Maryland alive - for good, she hopes.
The public can judge the results today at 3 p.m. in WMC Alumni Hall at McDaniel. Poklemba has gathered the six contestants, along with elementary and middle school girls - part of the Junior Miss "Be Your Best Self" program - to appear on stage along with former pageant winners, including her daughter, Brooke.
Today's winner will earn the title of Maryland Junior Miss 2006, money for college and a chance to compete for more at the national competition scheduled for Mobile, Ala., in June.
"We're not professionals, and neither are the girls," Poklemba says. "That's the beauty of the entire thing. In this program, girls are recognized for who they are: young high school senior girls developing and honing their skills to carry them through life. You may not see a perfect program, but that's OK."
Passionate, persuasive and often on the phone, Poklemba, 50, seems tailor-made for the mission. Until she put her mind to pulling the event together, over Thanksgiving, no competition was scheduled for this year.
Some of the blame goes to the decline of interest in televised beauty pageants, especially those like Junior Miss, which is based more on scholarships than on swimsuits.
The struggling Miss America pageant left its 84-year home in Atlantic City, N.J., last year after being dropped by network television. (It will be broadcast Jan. 21 from Las Vegas on cable's Country Music Television.) The 48-year-old America's Junior Miss competition, which has awarded about $90 million to participants over the years, lost its national sponsors in May because it could not attract national network coverage. At that time, the nonprofit group's board voted to end the program. Many local and state Junior Miss franchises - including Maryland's - followed suit.
In August, though, a coalition of pageant volunteers, former participants and local supporters announced it had found a way to continue the national competition. America's Junior Miss was restructured and a pageant date set for June 30. By that time, however, Maryland's pageant leadership had disbanded, and the program's future looked grim.
That's when Poklemba says she put on her thinking cap. You might say she took it personally: Not only was she holder of the 1973 Frederick County's Junior Miss title, she is the mother of Maryland's Junior Miss 2004, Brooke Poklemba.
"I felt so frustrated because I knew the benefits of the program from all angles - not only as a volunteer and as a contestant, but as the mother of a child who had gotten so much from it," Cheri Poklemba says.
With her children grown, she figured her part-time jobs of teaching aqua fitness and selling life insurance left enough time to rebuild the state's all-volunteer Junior Miss franchise. So she called the national organization in October to offer her services, with one condition.
"I said, `Can we skip a year? My son has a wedding coming up in March, and I don't know how I can possibly do this for 2006.'
"And they said, `We'd really like you to send someone down to the competition this year. Please don't give up yet.'"
She didn't. Indeed, Poklemba is hopelessly "can-do."
She started by calling Junior Miss committee members, volunteers and contacts from her competition days in the 1970s. From there, things moved quickly.
Thanksgiving weekend, the committee agreed on how to put the program together. Announcements about the 2006 pageant were posted on Web sites, and Poklemba contacted high school guidance counselors. A contestant orientation meeting early last month attracted girls from Carroll, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties.
McDaniel College, an institution with a history of offering scholarships to Junior Miss winners, provided the venue. Several admissions officers agreed to evaluate the contestants' academic records, which make up 20 percent of contestants' overall scores. The scholarship money, between $2,500 and $3,000 total, was raised primarily from committee members, volunteers and friends. Poklemba also reached Ronke Olaleye, Maryland's reigning Junior Miss, and picked the pageant date based upon her availability: She's on college break.