Beauty pageant contestant walks the talk for the homeless shelter

Someday a Vermonter is going to be crowned Miss America. And someday Paris Hilton is going to be governor of California, Lindsay Lohan is going to play Lady Macbeth, and Snooki Polizzi is going to be paid more than Toni Morrison to speak at Rutgers.

Okay, my bad on the snarky sarcasm. This spring Rutgers did pay Snooki more than they paid the 1993 Nobel laureate in literature. But you get my point.

“Vermont is definitely seen as an underdog in the Miss America competition,” Nydelis Ortiz told me. “No Vermonter has ever made the top 15. But I think it’s refreshing that we have opinions.” Ortiz, 21, would know. She was Miss Vermont USA 2010 in Donald Trump’s pageant. Now she will be competing in June to be Miss Vermont and represent our illustrious state in the Miss America competition in January 2012 in Las Vegas. (Trump’s pageant is separate from Miss America. The Miss America Organization is the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women.)

Ortiz is not your typical pageant contestant: No big scary pageant hair, no big scary pageant mom hovering, and she has a mind more interested in books than bathing suits. She graduated at the age of 20 from Castleton State College, plays the violin, and works as an accounting technician with the Department of Homeland Security in Williston, Vermont. Her immediate post-pageant goal is the Peace Corps; her longer term goal is an MBA and to work in international business. She lives with her family in Essex.

But what really separates her from so many other cookie-cutter contenders for the crown is this: When she was six years old, Burlington’s Committee on Temporary Shelter kept her and her mother and brother from winding up homeless. The three of them had just journeyed to the Green Mountains from San Juan, Puerto Rico, hoping to build a better life here. They landed in Burlington in July, but Ortiz still couldn’t get over how cold it was compared to Puerto Rico. Not long before they arrived, however, her mother had had a stroke and couldn’t work.

“COTS helped us to get back on our feet,” Ortiz recalls. “There was an affordable housing program that helped us find a place to live, the social worker found afterschool programs for my brother and me, and when my mother started to recover, they found her a part-time job – and then a full-time one.” (Ortiz’s mother eventually would make a full recovery and now works with Nydelis at Homeland Security.)

“I’m part of an outreach program where I work, and this winter when I was dropping off food at the [Chittenden] Emergency Food Shelf, it all came back to me that I had gone there as a little girl to get food,” she said.

Ortiz has not forgotten COTS. Two weeks from today, May 1, she will be participating in the three-mile COTS Walk in Burlington for the second time in her life, this time with other Miss Vermont contenders she is rounding up.  “Everyone deserves a home,” she said firmly, and has made educating people about homelessness her personal pageant platform.

The goal of the COTS Walk this year is to raise $175,000, and the need is greater than ever. In addition to all of the homeless women and men COTS served in 2010, last year 111 families depended upon a COTS shelter. COTS helped another 450 families – each in some way reminiscent of the Ortiz family – remain in their homes.

Clearly the face of poverty is changing. And perhaps one way to open people’s eyes to how easy it is to wind up at the food shelf or the shelter is with a beauty queen from Vermont who has flirted with homelessness.

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There is plenty of time to join Ortiz and easily 1,500 other Vermonters on the May 1 COTS Walk. To sign up and start recruiting pledges, simply visit or call 540-3084, ext. 204.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 17, 2011. Chris’s next novel, “The Night Strangers,” arrives on October 4, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.