‘Giv­ing is a gift’

Miss Arkansas shares heart with chil­dren.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BECCA MARTIN-BROWN

Miss Arkansas shares heart with chil­dren

Ev­ery Miss Arkansas has a cheer­ing sec­tion.

But no Miss Arkansas be­fore Mag­gie Ben­ton has had the “spunki­est, cra­zi­est, wildest, hap­pi­est” cheer­leader in her cor­ner.

“You’re beau­ti­ful,” 8-year-old Asher Ray of Lit­tle Rock as­sured the 22-yearold Ben­ton be­fore the evening gown com­pe­ti­tion on June 17. And she says when Ben­ton com­petes in the Miss Amer­ica Pageant Sept. 10, her queen should “just know that if she gets ner­vous, I’m out there in the au­di­ence watch­ing her and with her.”

Asher knows a lot about pageants. “Asher has ac­tu­ally been in­volved in the Di­a­mond State Princess Pro­gram for the last four years,” says mom Su­san, “first, as the Chil­dren’s Mir­a­cle Net­work princess and then as an ac­tual princess par­tic­i­pat­ing in the dances and walk­ing with two dif­fer­ent queens, in­clud­ing Mag­gie for the last two years.”

But she also knows a lot about brav­ery.

“She was di­ag­nosed in May of 2012 with Ewing’s Sar­coma,” Su­san Ray ex­plains. “Ewing’s is the se­cond most preva­lent bone can­cer among chil­dren, but it’s still fairly rare. It started with pain in her right leg. The pri­mary tu­mor was in her right fe­mur with nine metastatic tu­mors in her lungs.”

Asher went through 14 rounds of che­mother­apy, three surg­eries and 15 rounds of ra­di­a­tion with more than 100 nights at Arkansas Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal that first year, her mom re­lates. She was con­sid­ered dis­ease-free in March 2013, but her can­cer re­turned 10 months later. From that point she re­ceived 20-plus more rounds of stan­dard chemo and sev­eral more rounds of ra­di­a­tion be­fore we started ex­per­i­men­tal ther­apy nearly a year ago.

“We met Mag­gie al­most to the day a year ago,” Ray con­tin­ues. “She walked into our house like she had known us her en­tire life. Within the first 10 min­utes she and Asher were play­ing Le­gos and putting their hair in pig­tails. Since then we have had many oc­ca­sions with Mag­gie and also her fam­ily. They all wel­comed us with open arms. Miss Arkansas has re­ally been just a small part of our re­la­tion­ship. Mag­gie and Asher formed an in­stant eter­nal bond.”

“We just clicked,” Ben­ton says with one of her trade­mark smiles. “Mag­gie’s drawn to kids, and they’re drawn to her,” adds Ben­ton’s mom, Nancy Ben­ton of Jones­boro.

Chil­dren are at the heart of Ben­ton’s Miss Arkansas plat­form, which she calls “Giv­ing is a Gift.” Through a pro­gram at her church in Jones­boro, she was part of giv­ing Christ­mas gifts to young­sters in need, and she re­mem­bers clearly the lit­tle girl who opened only her first present — a doll — and just couldn’t let go of it to open an­other.

“It’s the first time I felt some­thing by giv­ing,” Ben­ton says.

She’s been do­ing it ever since, in­volved in mis­sions at her church, help­ing her Chi Omega soror­ity sis­ters raise $74,000 for Make-A-Wish MidSouth and serv­ing as vice pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Arkansas As­so­ci­ated Stu­dent Govern­ment dur­ing the 2016-17 year.

“I wanted to have a plat­form to talk about some­thing I’m pas­sion­ate about — pro­mot­ing ser­vice, phi­lan­thropy and kind­ness,” says the 2017 UA grad­u­ate. And she fig­ures if she talks to ev­ery­one she can as Miss Arkansas, “there’s strength in num­bers,” and she might start a “chain re­ac­tion” of ran­dom acts of kind­ness. Plus, she’ll be the of­fi­cial am­bas­sador for Chil­dren’s Mir­a­cle Net­work hospi­tals.

Stephen Cald­well, di­rec­tor of choral ac­tiv­i­ties at the UA, re­mem­bers Ben­ton as a “de­light,” saying she was “al­ways very gen­uine, there to learn, to ex­pe­ri­ence, to grow.” She was not a mu­sic ma­jor — her de­gree is in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with a mi­nor in jour­nal­ism — but she was in Cald­well’s classes for all eight semesters at the UA.

“She was al­ways en­er­getic, de­pend­able, ex­cep­tion­ally re­spon­si­ble, al­ways pre­pared” and “a won­der­ful so­prano, with lots of nat­u­ral tal­ent and abil­ity.”

That voice helped Ben­ton win Miss Arkansas with her ren­di­tion of “The Mu­sic of the Night” from “Phantom of the Opera,” which earned her a tal­ent award in pre­lim­i­nary com­pe­ti­tion. In ad­di­tion to the state ti­tle, she won the Sarah Slocum Over­all In­ter­view Award, the Julie Black­wood Smart Swim­suit Award and the People’s Choice Award, along with a $30,000 schol­ar­ship she’ll use to at­tend the UA Clin­ton School of Pub­lic Ser­vice after her year as Miss Arkansas.

Or Miss Amer­ica.

“I plan to do ev­ery­thing I did to pre­pare for Miss Arkansas,” she says.

COURTESY PHOTO

Mag­gie Ben­ton, Miss Arkansas 2017, and Asher Ray met through the Miss Arkansas Pageant sys­tem. But they “formed an in­stant eter­nal bond,” Asher’s mom says.

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