By Chris Cocoles on Sept. 9, 2013
Melissa McKinney, Miss Alaska, 2013, who went on to compete for Miss USA in Las Vegas in June, chatted with me for a Q&A session running in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal. To subscribe, click here:
Much of that interview focuses on the outdoors and how it has shaped Melissa’s life. But she also is proud of her humanitarian contributions.
When she was younger, McKinney spent about a year volunteering in Sudan, which has been ravaged by civil unrest and a genocide that claimed 400,000 lives in the early 2000s. Here is a little bit of my conversation with Melissa describing the horrors and uplifting scenes she witnessed while helping to co-found a school a and support center for local villagers:
“It was incredibly fulfilling that I was there during such a historical time. And I knew when I went there I might have a one-way ticket. We were kind of in the thick of what was going on with the genocide. We started a primary school, a cultural training center that really uplifted the young moms. It was enriching. We had no running water, no electricity. You’re in a very rural area that was populated. That was the irony of it. Just very third world. It was one of those things where you walk into it and know that you’re living history. When the opportunity came I really had to live out that ‘OK, this is one of those things where if I say no I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life. If I say yes, I hope I have the rest of my life’.”
I asked Melissa if she experienced both horrible scenes and conversely stirring positive moments:
“There were all kinds of atrocities. There were landmines, and a lot of the kids that we had were orphaned, losing parents due to the war or genocidal issues. You could walk down the street and just see the trauma in some of their faces. But I think the most rewarding and interesting part for me, was walking into a situation and seeing children that were not laughing or would even talk open up and just become kids again. I had a lot of the [United Nations] workers who would stop in and tell us ‘This is a happy place, and you can’t find a lot of happy here’. We created an environment where you can be allowed to be a real person. You could leave your pain behind and do something different.”
Did she shed a lot of tears while there?
“Yes. I’m definitely a strong woman, but I’m human. I buried children that died in my arms. There were a lot of things that go on that change a person for the better. But life is real. The thing that I could walk away from is I made a difference when others ran in the other direction.”