“Are you a real princess?” the student at Blessed Sacrament School in Milwaukee asked Laura Kaeppeler.

MissWis11Miss Wisconsin, Laura Kaeppeler, talks to second grade students in Litza Janowski’s second grade class at Blessed Sacrament School in Milwaukee on Thursday, Oct. 6. More photos of her visit to Blessed Sacrament can be viewed and purchased at http://photos.chnonline.org. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)With a sparkling crown atop her head, Kaeppeler did look princess-like, but her actual title is Miss Wisconsin 2011. She won the state pageant in June and will compete for the Miss America title in Las Vegas on Jan. 14, 2012.

As Miss Wisconsin, Kaeppeler, 23, said her role is focused on service. She developed a program in Kenosha for supporting children who have parents in prison, called Circles of Support, and her platform issue is mentoring children of incarcerated parents.

“Having a parent incarcerated is an experience I can relate to,” said Kaeppeler, whose father was sentenced to a year in federal prison for a white-collar crime when she was a teenager. “Kids in this situation can feel very alone. I didn’t think anyone knew how I was feeling when it happened to me, so I tell them that I’ve been in your shoes; I can understand what you’re experiencing.”

A Kenosha native, Kaeppeler attended St. Therese Elementary School and St. Joseph High School both in Kenosha.

“My Catholic education has been so important in reaching my goals. It gave me my foundation for my faith,” she said. “I praise God in how he’s rewarded me, how he has helped me. I feel my journey as Miss Wisconsin is a way to give back.”

Through Circles of Support, children, parents and guardians can contact Kaeppeler directly; her contact information is posted on the website, laurakaeppeler.com.

“I want to make that connection,” she said. “This can be a taboo subject, but since I’ve begun talking and opening up about it, I’ve received numerous emails.”

Citing research that indicates children whose parents are incarcerated are six times more likely than other children to commit crimes, Kaeppeler’s hope is that mentoring can help end that cycle of crime.

Circles of Support’s mission is to provide support to children of all ages, encourage positive decision making and help strengthen the child’s self-esteem. On her website, Kaeppeler posted, “I understand the shame, pain and difficulties associated with having a family member in prison.”

Love of music, performing

As she endured the stress of having her father being in prison, “music was my outlet,” Kaeppeler said.

A classical vocalist, she graduated from Carthage College in Kenosha last December with a bachelor’s degree in music and an emphasis in vocal performance. For the talent competition during the Miss Wisconsin pageant, Kaeppeler performed an operatic aria to “Il Bacio.”

“Laura always loved to perform,” said her mother, Sue Kaeppeler, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Kenosha. “She took dance and musical theater classes as a girl and felt comfortable singing in front of people at a young age. She knows it’s a gift she’s been given from God.”

She said her daughter started voice lessons when she was 10 years old, and began cantoring at St. Therese Parish as a fourth-grader.

Noting that her daughter’s first idea for a Miss Wisconsin platform was the importance of music in schools, “Laura decided to be open with her life experience and help others whose parents are incarcerated,” she said. “It took a lot of courage for her to speak out.”

Principal was Kaeppeler’s sixth-grade teacher

Kaepeler was invited to address the Blessed Sacrament students by the school’s principal, Carol Degen, Kaeppeler’s sixth-grade teacher at St. Therese. 

“I wanted Laura to visit because I thought it would be a great opportunity for the kids to meet someone with a Catholic school background who is a good role model and is doing great things,” Degen said.

Kaeppeler’s presentation to about 160 elementary students in the school gym Oct. 6 focused on four things she believes are necessary in life: Putting God first, setting goals, surrounding yourself with family and friends that bring out your best, and believing in yourself.

She told the children, “I talk to God every day, whether I’m happy or sad.”

When explaining goal setting, Kaeppeler said she focused on getting good grades to attend a good high school and college. She entered her first pageant at the age of 21 and said she wanted to be Miss Wisconsin “to win scholarship money to pay for my college education, and to talk about mentoring and helping kids who have parents in prison.”

As an example of believing in oneself, Kaeppeler noted that after winning her first pageant to become Miss Kenosha, she was not selected as Miss Wisconsin that year, so she tried again. The second time she competed, as Miss Southern Wisconsin, she was crowned Miss Wisconsin.

Kaeppeler asked the students if they had any questions for her. One boy wanted to know if she drives, and Kaeppeler replied that she drives a special red car that says Miss Wisconsin on the side and MISS WIS on the license plates. “I call it my Miss Wis mobile,” she said.

Another student asked what it felt like when she was named Miss Wisconsin.

For information on Laura Kaeppeler and her Circles of Support project, visit laurakaeppeler.com.

“I had worked so hard, so I was just joyous and thanked the Lord, and I also cried,” she responded.

After singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to end her presentation, Kaeppeler posed for pictures with teachers and students, and autographed pieces of paper thrust into her hands by several excited girls.

“I hope she becomes Miss America,” one girl exclaimed, as she carefully folded her autographed paper.