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Making a difference
8-year-old girl with spina bifida wins pageant, gives back
8-year-old Jenna Gerner was born with spina bifida. Last July, she was crowned Miss Georgia Junior Pre-Teen at the National American Miss pageant in Atlanta. Since winning, she has used her newfound influence to give back to the Bryan County community. - photo by Provided

Jenna Gerner is an 8-year-old girl who loves the color pink, tolerates math class and aspires to be an actress. She leads a perfectly ordinary life, with two extraordinary exceptions:

She was born with spina bifida. And she’s a beauty queen.

The exceptional Richmond Hill Elementary School student was crowned Miss Georgia Junior Pre-Teen in July at the National American Miss pageant in Atlanta. It was her first pageant experience.

“I didn’t expect to win,” said the outgoing third-grader. “I just thought it would be fun to be on stage in a pretty dress. When they said my name, I didn’t get it. I didn’t realize I won. Then they put the crown on my head, and I cried.”

She received a standing ovation as she accepted her title.

Since being crowned, Jenna has used her newfound celebrity to help others.

Her first act as queen was to choose a charity to support.

“We chose the Ronald McDonald House because of how wonderful they were to us when Jenna was hospitalized,” said Danielle Gerner, Jenna’s mother. “We wanted to give back.”

As a result of her condition, Jenna has been hospitalized countless times and undergone 13 surgeries.

“She’s always so positive,” said her mother. “Even when she’s in the hospital, she’s telling jokes and being funny. She never stops smiling.”

Jenna believes her personality played a role in her pageant victory.

“I won because I’m a nice person,” she explained. “That’s what makes me beautiful. When I get a shot or have a surgery, I always tell the doctor, “Thank you for making me feel better.’”

In addition to supporting the Ronald McDonald House, Jenna also volunteers with the United Way Bryan County’s Clothes Line Project.

With her family’s help, she collects winter clothing from friends and neighbors to give to disadvantaged families in Bryan County.

“People in Richmond Hill are really receptive and generous,” said Danielle Gerner. “We got so much stuff, even two fur coats.”

Jenna’s experiences as a pageant queen and as a volunteer have shaped her ideas about beauty.

“People are pretty through the things they do,” she said. “Being pretty on the outside doesn’t matter. People are beautiful when they help people.”

Her mother hopes that Jenna’s success in the National American Miss pageant will be an example to others.

“What I want most for Jenna is for people to understand that you don’t have to be a perfect, blue-eyed, blond-haired little girl who’s good at everything in order to be a role model,” she explained. “Jenna is a role model because of who she is.”

Jenna heads to California next week to represent Georgia in the national competition. She’s looking forward to competing, visiting Disneyland and, with any luck, spotting some celebrities.

“I always wanted to go to Hollywood,” she said. “Maybe, in like two years, I’ll have my own star on the Walk of Fame.”


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