OCEAN CITY —Miss New Jersey Cierra Kaler-Jones, sash draped and crown at the ready, was on the job Sunday morning, posing with eager fans on her first full day as the state’s newest titleholder.
Cherry Hill residents Roy and Linda Aumiller didn’t make it to Saturday night’s pageant, but the couple welcomed the chance to meet the 21-year-old Galloway Township resident as she and her family, friends and pageant officials gathered on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
“We like to support her,” Roy Aumiller said of the pageant as the couple posed for pictures.
They were quickly followed by the Jardel family, of Washington Township, and soon the Dahms, of nearby Upper Township.
“We watch the pageant every year,” Dawn Marie Jardel said as her children Jacob, 9, and Morgan, 7, posed with Kaler-Jones. “It’s a fun tradition.
Being asked to pose for pictures was a new experience for Kaler-Jones, but she gladly accepted the opportunity to meet new people.
“I’m just your average everyday person. I just happen to love giving back. I love my community,” she said.
It’s a trait her parents, Alvin and Becky Borders, brother Justin, and friend Hantz Jean-Francois said came naturally to Kaler-Jones.
Asked to describe her their first words were driven, goal-oriented, passionate and real.
“I think there’s a stereotype of a woman in a bathing suit, but they don’t know the real person,” Alvin Borders said.
His wife added, “It’s so much more than a beauty pageant.”
Her parents encouraged her to compete again this year after she came close to the top last year. “We just felt like there was no going back,” Becky Borders said.
And when the win was clear? “I felt sick to my stomach,” Becky Borders said of the emotional day.
Kaler-Jones and her 23 fellow contestants spent five days in Ocean City where a six- member judging panel evaluated them based on a personal interview, talent and lifestyle and swimsuit.
Top prize was the title, a chance to compete in the Miss America Competition in September in Atlantic City, a $12,000 college scholarship and other assorted prizes.
Kaler-Jones, a graduate of Absegami High School, is a senior at Rutgers University, and her 17-year-old brother Justin will also be attending school there in the fall.
“She bleeds scarlet,” Alvin Borders said. “She loves Rutgers.”
Kaler-Jones is studying social work along with several minors, and her parents said her long-term goal is be a lawyer.
When she’s not studying, she stays active with her platform, Empowering Today’s Youth through Arts Education.
“You know, the girl does so much I can’t keep up,” Becky Borders joked.
While she waited to take a quick dip in the ocean, a Miss New Jersey Sunday morning tradition, Kaler-Jones said the crown took on special significance for her.
Kaler-Jones said she comes from “a lower-middle class family.” Both of her parents work at Harrah’s in Atlantic City.
She is also only the second African-American woman to be crowned Miss New Jersey. The last was Miss New Jersey 1983 Suzette Charles. Charles went on to become Miss America.
“I think that it was a driving force for me,” Kaler-Jones said.
As she spread her message about the importance of arts education, she visited schools and allowed the young children she met to sometimes put on the crown she earned at a local pageant. She competed this year as Miss Coastal Shore.
“It didn’t become an issue to me until I started putting a crown on the the little kids’ heads and teachers would say how much it mattered for them to see someone that looks like them in that role,” Kaler-Jones said. “Just to see a girl that looks like you means something.”
She said her father is African-American and her mother’s background is a combination of Filipino, German and Irish.
“I’m a little melting pot,” Kaler-Jones joked.
“New Jersey is the most diverse state and to have a representative like me just fits,” she said.
While some have said race is not “a big deal,” Kaler-Jones said it cannot be ignored.
“Even for me, growing up as a minority female wanting to be a lawyer, it’s been hard,” she said.
She won the title on her fourth attempt and said that along the way some told her she didn’t fit the mold because of her racial makeup. “People have said it to me. ‘You will never win this because you don’t have the look,’” Kaler-Jones said.
Her role models are people such as Miss America 2003 Erika Harold, an attorney and Republican politician from Illinois, whom Kaler-Jones said she admired for her passion and her academic achievements.
As she readies for her own trip to Miss America, she will have a bevy of supporters including Miss New Jersey contestant and best friend Anna Negron.
Negron competed this year with Kaler-Jones.
“I’ve watched her grow. She’s watched me grow,” Negron said of the four years the two have competed together. “She has a beautiful heart.”
Negron, 23, of Vineland, said there is a great camaraderie among the contestants and she was thrilled to watch her friend as she was crowned.
“I felt like I won,” Negron said of that tearful moment when Kaler-Jones was selected.
Just before the top five was narrowed down to one, Negron said she turned to her friend and told her, “You are going to win.”
“I’m happy for her,” she said. “She deserved it.”
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