MARGATE - Miss New Jersey Cara McCollum was surrounded by a pint-sized mob and she took it in stride.
"Oh, I love it," McCollum said after reading to a group of young children at the Margate Library. "Kids have so much energy."
McCollum was the day's surprise guest, and the surprise was a hit as the children posed for pictures and giggled as she read Judy Cox's "Don't Be Silly, Mrs. Millie!"
For McCollum, the Margate visit offered a chance to sit down and read and talk to children, something she loves to do - the gift of reading is her platform - but has had little time for since becoming Miss New Jersey on June 15. Soon her schedule will become even more demanding as McCollum prepares for the Sept. 15 Miss America competition in Atlantic City by practicing her talent, staying in shape and preparing for interviews.
"And mentally preparing for it," she said.
But on Wednesday, she could just enjoy herself and share her love of reading.
"Oh my God, my daughter's going to freak out," said Candice Ripoll, of Pelham, N.Y., as she spotted McCollum in her crown.
Francesca Ripoll, 7, and her little brother then posed for pictures with McCollum, the little girl beaming the whole time.
The 19-year-old Princeton student, an Arkansas native who is spending the summer in Margate, has been an avid reader since age 5 and started a program in high school that delivered books to children in need.
Miss New Jersey pageant hostess Audrey Fischer, of Egg Harbor Township, was on hand Wednesday in case McCollum needed anything.
Fischer, who has been involved with either the Miss America or Miss New Jersey organizations since the early 1980s, said McCollum has all the traits to be a winner this year.
"She's intelligent. She's sweet and has a tremendous personality. She's got the look," Fischer said. "She has to be ready, and I think she is."
"I'm getting a piano today," McCollum said, explaining a local store donated a piano so she can practice for the competition. "I have a new talent piece I'm working on."
But promoting reading is her passion.
"I've been begging for this (chance to interact with children). That's why I got into this, to get into the schools and speak to children," she said.
McCollum read the book, much to the delight of the children, who laughed as she told the story of a teacher who confuses her words. McCollum obviously enjoyed herself, too.
"Do you guys like to read," she asked. The answer was a resounding "yes!"
She talked with them about their favorite books and told them to keep reading.
"It is so important," she said.
Then she handed out books purchased by the library for all the children in attendance.
"I have Winnie the Pooh books for you," she said.
McCollum rated the visit a success and looked forward to more appearances that offer the opportunity to talk about reading.
"This is what I live for," she said.
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