embrace-princess-winners-2011_web.jpgVelma Lawrence is tired, it’s late in the evening and the founder and CEO of Embrace Girls Foundation Inc. has spent the past few months planning and organizing the Little Miss Princess Pageant and Holiday Extravaganza.

The exhaustion isn’t evident, however, when a teenager dressed in a floor length white gown and wearing a tiara comes over to give her a hug.

“These little girls, I am just so proud,” Lawrence says as she sits in the empty Carol City High School auditorium where the pageant has just ended.

The third annual event, held Dec. 9 featured performances by Simone’s Just Dance Performing Arts Dance Studios, who opened the show to the Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas.

The pageant featured 11 participants aged 4 to 13 in the categories of Daisies, Lilies and Sunflowers and was hosted by Miss Miami Gardens USA 2011 Annanetha Mitchell and Myla Smith, a member of the Embrace Girls Foundation.

The five judges, who included Miami Gardens Police Chief Matthew Boyd, scored the girls based on fun wear, talent and evening gown.

“I remember when Velma first started this,” said Boyd, “It’s been a success and the kids have grown. It’s wonderful.”

Lawrence founded Embrace in 2001. A journalist by trade, she wanted to start a group to provide mentoring for girls, something she felt had been lacking in her own childhood.

“I didn’t remember there being any clubs for girls aside from Girl Scouts,” said Lawrence, “so I gathered some of my girlfriends together and we had about 16 girls [to start Embrace].”

During that first meeting at Poinciana Park Elementary in Miami, Lawrence and her friends talked with the girls, ate snacks and slowly built a rapport. At their next meeting, about 40 girls showed up.

“I knew I was on to something,” said Lawrence.

The foundation’s mission is to build “healthy, confident, ambitious young ladies who strive for academic excellence,” a goal it aims for through tutoring programs, leadership, life and character educational training.

“I understand the concept of what they’re doing and I just have watched them and they do a wonderful job of focusing young girls and they development them as a total young women,” said Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson. “It’s important for young ladies to have that self-confidence, to know that they are great within themselves.”

That confidence was showcased during each phase of the pageant as each participant not only showed enthusiasm but faced a large crowd without flinching.

Each contestant put her best foot forward, from Karis Sanai Fiddler, 4, who came out wearing a pink skirt and Barbie shirt during the fun wear portion to Ashley Taylor, 10, who belted out Alicia Keys’ No One, in the talent segment.

“The pageant shows them team work,” said Lakiesha Westburry, whose niece, Ariyanna Pennywell, 4, took part in the event. “Especially if you don’t win, it teaches them to cheer on the other girls, etiquette and how to be a lady.”

Miami-Dade County School Board m ember Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, of district 2, recently asked Embrace to offer a mentoring program at four schools in her district.

“It gives them an opportunity to know that there is more to life than what they probably could imagine,” said Bendross-Mindingall. “It’s an opportunity for our girls to become the ladies that we know they are.”

At the end of the night, Abrielle Robinson, 13, was crowned Little Miss Princess for the Sunflower category. “It’s very tough, from the dance to the fun wear practicing to just practicing your slow evening walk and walking on your tippy-toes inside your room to being on the stage and actually win this trophy is just amazing,” said Abrielle, who dedicated her win to her uncle, John Cole, who recently died. She was first runner-up in last year’s pageant.

Other winners for the night included Ashley Taylor, who won for Talent, Destiny Johnson, named Miss Congeniality, Jeannette Dawson, winner in the Lily category,
and Karis Sanai Fiddler, winner in the Daisy.

Photo: DIVA AND DAISY: Kenyari Alexander was named pageant runner-up and Miss Diva at the annual Little Miss Princess Pageant and Holiday Extravaganza held by the Embrace Girls Foundation at the Carol City High School auditorium in Miami Gardens on Dec. 9