Edwards

Former Miss UM brings joy to kids with cancer

By Nastasia Boulos

Former Miss UM brings joy to kids with cancer

By Nastasia Boulos
What started as a simple act of kindness—giving away an old pageant crown to a cancer patient—turned into a lifelong endeavor for alumna Jenna Edwards, B.S.C. ’04.

The tea party was in full swing. Music was playing with cake and punch laid out on a table. Freshly painted nails and make up on their faces, the young girls each received a tiara. As they laughed and danced around the room, they could, for a brief moment, forget the IVs, the chemo, and the fact that they were cancer patients. They could, at least for a few hours, be little girls again, be queens for a day. 

The party that day, in the conference room of an outpatient cancer clinic in Mississippi, was the first of many hosted by what would become the For a Day Foundation (originally Queen for a Day), a non-profit organization creating emotionally therapeutic experiences for seriously ill children.

Behind it all is alumna Jenna Edwards, B.S.C. ’04. Born and raised in Mississippi, the former Miss UM says she was always looking for an opportunity to help.

The opportunity, and inspiration, came while she was interning with a local TV station hosting the Children’s Miracle Network telethon. There, Edwards met Randa, a brain tumor patient. Touched by the little girl's struggle, she ran home and brought back one of the many tiaras she had collected during her years participating in pageants. When she gave it to Randa, the girl's expression changed. “I had taken for granted what it felt like to wear a crown,” Edwards recalls. “Seeing the expression on her face made me realize that there was something there.”

Edwards later logged onto a pageant message board, asking others to donate their own tiaras. She received hundreds in the mail. She got others to join—whether through donating a cake or volunteering—and organized the first hospital visit, where she met the children who would inspire her to keep going.

Amongst them was a 16-year old girl who had lost her leg due to chemo complications. After Edwards brought her a tiara, the hospital staff said it was the first time they had seen her smile in several weeks.

“It’s extremely humbling to be in such an intimate and vulnerable situation,” Edwards says. “You're acutely aware of what they're going through but you're trying to be a distraction as well. It’s humbling for them to open up to someone like you, a random stranger walking into their room.”

She continued to organize hospital visits and to help others do the same. Her participation in pageants had taught her to break out of her shell of shyness, to walk into a business and ask for sponsorships. She used those skills to advocate for her foundation and the children it supports. After the first tea party, there were four groups organizing similar events in their areas. 

Twenty years later, the foundation is still going strong with 15 volunteer-led chapters across the country. It has been featured in People magazine and on the Oprah Winfrey Show. They’ve organized thousands of visits, bringing makeovers, manicures, and tiaras to patients through the "Queen for a Day" program, and organizing visits from policemen, firefighters, and even Batman, through the "Hero for a Day" program.

For Edwards, it’s about bringing small moments of joy to a dire situation. “We’re focusing our efforts on making sure that everyone maintains some sort of normalcy, even just a few moments of normal childhood memories, whether it's for the siblings or the patients themselves.”

She adds, “there are stories of kids who have survived their situation and to hear them living their life, hear them say 'yea I remember when you came, here's what it did for me.' That definitely keeps me going.”

To learn more about you can become involved with the For a Day Foundation, see here.