Friday in Lewes at Cape Henlopen High School

Three of 14 Miss Delaware contestants this year are from right here in Sussex County.

In recent years, Sussex County women have been well represented, with winners Brooke Mitchell in 2015 and Alyssa Murray in 2012. Both are from Selbyville. The 2016 Miss Delaware, Amanda Debus, is from Middletown.

The 2017 pageant will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, June 16, at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes. Over its 76-year run, Miss Delaware has been held around the state. The Rehoboth Beach Convention Center hosted the pageant for 47 years. For the last decade or so, however, Miss Delaware was held at Dover Downs. Executive Director of the Miss Delaware Scholarship Organization, Laura Moylan, said it was moved to the high school because the price tag was more reasonable.

“[This] is a 501c3 nonprofit,” she said. “Our mission is to empower young women by offering scholarship opportunities, opportunities to be involved in community service, promote a platform, perform and speak in public and to champion causes that the organization and contestants are passionate about.”

To qualify, contestants must be between the ages of 17 and 24 and at least a high school senior, single and never married, a U.S. citizen and live, work full time or attend school full time in Delaware. They must have won a local title within the pageant year.

Miss Brandywine, Miss Blue Gold and Miss Diamond State are the titles held by the Sussex contestants.

They’ll be judged in talent, swimsuit, evening gown and interview categories.

“If you have the confidence to walk across that stage in a swimsuit, and do it with class,” Moylan said, “You can go to any board room in the country and make a presentation without being intimidated.”

Georgetown and Laurel

Rachel Buckler, of Georgetown, is 20 years old and graduated from Sussex Central High School in 2014. She’ll begin her senior year at the University of Delaware in the fall, where she’s majoring in health behavioral science with a double minor in disability studies and dance. This summer, she’s working two jobs in Rehoboth Beach, as a lifeguard and a server.

Buckler won the title of Miss Diamond State in November. She’s been competing since she was four years old and competed in last year’s Miss Delaware pageant as Miss Hockessin. She said she enjoys the sisterhood of pageantry.

“You’re up there with all your best friends, cheering each other on, no matter what happens in the end,” Buckler said.

She’s been dancing since she was six and will be tap dancing for the talent portion of the pageant this year. Her platform is the March of Dimes.

“I was born premature and want to help families who are going through what my family had to go through,” Buckler said. “It’s something I love to do.”

Buckler was born six weeks early with underdeveloped lungs. She was kept in an incubator for two weeks and on a heart monitor for six months. Nowadays, she contributes to the March of Dimes, which works to raise awareness of and to find the causes of prematurity. Most recently, she gathered a team to raise money in a 5K and collected items to entertain the siblings of premature infants whose families are visiting the hospital.

Taylor Johnson, Miss Blue Gold, is 22 and lives in Laurel. She graduated from Laurel High School and last year, earned her associate’s degree from Delaware Technical and Community College. She is now working toward her bachelor’s degree at Salisbury University in communications, minoring in music. She’ll sing in the talent portion.

This is Johnson’s second year competing in pageants, and her first year competing for Miss Delaware. She said she went to see a friend in the Miss Delaware 2015 competition and was instantly hooked.

“When I walked in and saw everything that was going on, I said, ‘Where has this been all my life?!’ It’s so much more than just competing, it’s about community service and I love every minute,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s platform is melanoma awareness. She’s passionate about the issue because her mother was diagnosed with stage 3C melanoma skin cancer in 2011, and hopes to promote proper sunscreen use and prevent people from using tanning beds.

“That scared me. Going into high school, there’s a lot of changes and transitions happening, and I was afraid my mom wouldn’t be there for that,” Johnson said. “We could’ve lost my mom. I’m lucky she’s still here. What she went through gives me a topic to be passionate about.”

The third Sussex county competitor is Miss Brandywine, 22-year-old Jenna Hitchens, of Georgetown. She graduated from Delaware State University last year with a degree in communications. She works as a marketing specialist.

Hitchens has been competing in pageants since she was an infant. Like Buckler, she’s been dancing most of her life and will perform a contemporary routine for the talent portion.

She’s a victim of convicted pedophile Earl Bradley, the Lewes doctor who sexually abused over 100 children, and a vocal advocate of sexual abuse survivors.

“I was abused for ten years. When I finally told people what had happened I realized that people don’t talk about sexual abuse, so when you’re a victim you don’t feel normal. You don’t feel like everyone else. I want to change that stigma,” Hitchens said.

When the news of Bradley’s crimes broke, Hitchens was in school and broke down in tears. Her Spanish teacher took her aside and was the first person she was able to tell about her abuse.

Last year, Hitchens compiled research on various states’ versions of Erin’s Law, named for another sexual abuse victim. It requires schools to teach sexual abuse awareness to grades kindergarten through six. After going to Sen. Ernie Lopez, a lifelong family friend, her work paid off. Erin’s Law was passed in Delaware in 2016.

In addition to her legislative work, Hitchens is a speaker for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“For a long time I didn’t trust people; I would have panic attacks,” she said. “But I don’t think I’d be nearly as strong as I am had it not happened. I hope that if there’s a victim [reading this], they feel that they’re not alone and they’re more than what happened to them.”