This is the second in a Midlands Anchor series on Miss South Carolina contestants with local ties, focusing on the hard work, academic achievements, community contributions and passion for good causes which make the young women who compete in the pageant far more than just pretty faces. Click here for the first in the series.
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Fred Rogers, the legendary host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, often shared those words from his mother. In South Carolina, if you heed their advice, there’s a good chance you’ll see Leslie Knight, Miss Capital City 2016.
At 22, Leslie has helped change (and in many cases save) the lives of countless children. As a student at the University of South Carolina, she worked tirelessly with Dance Marathon, serving as executive director as a senior and leading the team to a then-record total of $501,528 for Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. She continued working for the kids as Miss USC in 2015, raising money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals while competing in the Miss South Carolina Pageant. That work has continued this year, and she has raised more than $7,900 more while wearing the Miss Capital City crown and sash.
Leslie, now a graduate student at USC, is beautiful, smart and successful. She was USC Homecoming Queen, a leader in her sorority (Phi Mu), and president of the Cocktails a cappella group. Along with all her work, she finds time for friends, her dog Davis, and her favorite TV show, The Bachelor. Her life might seem perfect, but she’s made admitting it isn’t part of her mission, in an effort to help kids in a difficult situation she experienced as a child.
“I put on this front all the time of being tough and being strong,” Leslie said. She once found it hard to talk to anyone about her biological father, who was incarcerated when Leslie was 4 and has been in and out of jail ever since. She’s overcome that reluctance in the last two years. “Being involved in Miss South Carolina has pushed me to be able to talk about it and find a purpose for what happened to me.”
That purpose, like that of so much of Leslie’s life, is to help kids. She has devoted herself to working on her own and with the nonprofit Proverbs 22:6 Ministries to give children with parents help in dealing with that trauma and avoiding a similar fate.
“These kids need help or they may up in prison as well.” According to Proverbs 22:6 Ministries, 82 percent of children whose parents go to prison end up there too as adults, and 16,000 kids in the Midlands alone have a father or mother behind bars. Leslie said a stigma often goes with being the child of an incarcerated parent. “People automatically assume you may be a bad influence as well,” she said. “I tell [the kids] I believe in them no matter what people are telling them.”
In addition to helping her find the courage to share her story, Leslie said being a Miss South Carolina contestant has opened doors to help her spread her message. “The crown definitely helps you to have a larger voice,” she said. “I know what it would’ve meant to me to have someone come in with a crown and sash and say ‘I’m just like you.'”
Leslie said her work has been a help to her as well as to others. “I don’t think I realized the healing I still needed,” she said. “I feel like this program would have helped me maybe have a relationship with my father where I don’t have one now.”
Like every other Miss South Carolina contestant, Leslie works hard to prepare for the pageant, physically and mentally. In addition to interview research and practice and talent rehearsals and her fundraising work, Leslie drives from Columbia to Spartanburg regularly to work with a trainer to get ready for the swimsuit portion of the competition. This past Saturday, she sat for hours at a table at Columbia’s Soda City market, hoping for donations for the kids. If she wins the Miss South Carolina crown, she will take a year off from grad school to serve and prepare for the Miss America pageant.
“I don’t think people realize what we’re competing for is to have this 24/7 job,” she said. She added that any time it seems overwhelming, remembering the kids she is so committed to helping gets her going again. “That’s what makes it all worth it.”
Those who would like to donate to Children’s Miracle Network in support of Leslie can do so online.