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Catching Up With Miss Philadelphia

April 10, 2012

Lauren Bilski

Since her recent coronation as Miss Philadelphia, Drexel junior Lauren Bilski says she’s been humbled by just how far she’s been thrust into the local limelight.

“I’ve probably held more babies in the past week than I have my entire life,” a crown-and-sash-clad Bilski said with a laugh.

But Bilski—whose jazz dance to the Glee rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” wowed a sold-out Mandell Theater last month—says she welcomes the fanfare.

As someone who’s been sliding on ballet slippers and shimmying into tutus since the age of 3, Bilski, a Wilkes-Barre native, said the glitz of her pageant crown is now allowing her to also shine a spotlight on an issue that’s been close to her heart: neurologic rehabilitation.

DrexelNow was recently able to squeeze into Bilski’s jam-packed schedule for a walk across campus to chat about everything from her experience as a camp counselor for children with brain injuries to what made her fall in love with University City.

How did you become involved in pageants?
Two years ago, I was a freshman at Drexel. One of the girls I grew up with, [Miss Pennsylvania 2009] Shannon Doyle, suggested I become involved in the Miss America organization. She was seven years older than me, and I really looked up to her. So I auditioned [for Miss Philadelphia] and did it. I was kind of clueless and didn’t really know about the system at all, but I had a great experience and met a lot of amazing girls who became my best friends.

Since the day I started doing pageants, I really just wanted to be Miss Philadelphia. The women who have gone before me as Miss Philadelphia are so incredible, and every one of them has made some enormous impact on the city. So that, for me, was like my pageant goal. Of course, Miss Pennsylvania is coming up in a few weeks, so right now I’m shifting gears and looking at how the state at large can use an ambassador for my platform.

So what initially made you decide to become a dragon?
I had applied to so many schools, but the first time I came to Drexel and auditioned [for the dance program], I just knew that was it. After that, I canceled the rest of my auditions.

It was a very definite feeling for me—Drexel was everything I wanted in a university. Physical therapy was something I became really passionate about in high school, but I also have this profound passion for dance, so I was really interested in double majoring. When I came to Drexel, they said they were actually in the process of developing a program that combined the two. The purpose of the program is to give students a better background so that when I graduate I can work for, say, the Pennsylvania Ballet for example as their physical therapist. That’s one of my dream jobs, but I would also like to continue my education here at Drexel and focus on neurological physical therapy so I can continue to work with patients with brain injuries.

Speaking of which, physical therapy isn’t exactly a typical interest for the average high school student. What sparked your passion for neurological rehabilitation?
When I was 14 years old, I was dancing at a studio, and I had always dreamed of being a dance teacher. When they gave me my first student, I was really excited because it was the first time I was going to get to share my love of dance and my passion with someone.

Then she became ill with encephalitis [an inflammation of the brain]. She may never physically be the same as she was before she became sick. I was really hurt and really confused about seeing what happened to her, and so I really wanted to help her. Her mom told me about this camp called Camp Cranium in Millville, Pa. It’s a one-week, overnight summer camp for children with brain injuries. I decided I’d go—I was sure there was something to be gained from the experience. “Something to be gained” was an understatement. The experience changed my life.

How so?
These kids don’t get to do what other kids do because maybe they have a visual field cut and can’t see on one side, and so they can’t run by a lake because it’s dangerous. Maybe they’re in a wheel chair, and they can’t climb a tree. Camp Cranium gives them the opportunity to do these things because it’s equipped for them. Every kid is suffering from things that they are as well. It’s liberating to see them enjoy themselves.

I teach a dance class while I’m there. By the end of it every year, I get an email from a parent or a kid will come up to me and say, “You know, I never thought I could dance because I’m in a wheel chair. But you taught me that I can, and now I feel like I can do anything.” And so for me, it’s really overwhelming and makes me so happy to hear them say things like that.

How will those experiences shape your year as Miss Philadelphia?
As Miss Philadelphia, I want to take those opportunities—the self-expression of dance, the community that those kids find at camp—and start nurturing them right here in Philly. My passion started with kids, and it’s expanding now. I want to be at both the VA with soldiers and with kids, talking about their experiences and helping them find the support in the community that they deserve.

--Maria Zankey