Newly crowned Miss New York Outstanding Teen Sarah Lawrence, 17, was a carefree 13-year-old slipping into a dress for a school dance at St. Clare School on Staten Island when signs of her scoliosis were first detected.
“My mom noticed that my dress wasn’t fitting anymore, and it was actually because my shoulder blade wasn’t fitting in the sleeve pocket,” Miss Lawrence recalled. “She took a closer look at my back the next day, and saw that there were a lot of portions that were pretty uneven. Then she took me to the doctor to get an X-ray, and it turned out I had scoliosis.
“I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was in the eighth grade, and it’s something that I’m still treated for,” Miss Lawrence told CNY in a phone interview Aug. 20. “I went through the bracing treatment and I still visit my doctor about a potential surgery.”
Miss Lawrence, who wore a brace 10 hours a day for two years until age 15, chose as her pageant platform, “The Curveball Project: Scoliosis Awareness,” a social impact initiative to educate others about scoliosis, treatment and detection, and to provide support for those suffering from the disease.
“Part of the reason I got involved in the Miss America Organization is so that I could turn this that I’m dealing with into a way of helping other people.”
She and her family, which includes parents Donald and Karen Lawrence, and an older sister, Claire, 21, belong to St. Clare parish on Staten Island.
When she was announced as the winner of the pageant, held at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill June 8—the day after her graduation from Notre Dame Academy High School on Staten Island—“It was just pure shock,” Miss Lawrence recalled.
“My goal was to make the Top 5. When they called my name, I didn’t know how to react. I was crying and laughing and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was just a rush of every emotion ever.”
For the victory, she received a $5,000 cash scholarship. She also won the overall interview portion of the competition, and with that, a $250 cash scholarship.
For the talent portion of the competition, Miss Lawrence chose a contemporary jazz dance to Birdy’s “Keeping Your Head Up.” A dancer since age 2, she also does ballet, hip-hop and tap.
As Miss New York Outstanding Teen, Miss Lawrence was a contestant in the Miss America Outstanding Teen competition held in late July in Orlando, Fla. Although she wasn’t a finalist, she received a $1,000 scholarship for competing.
For being named Miss Richmond County Outstanding Teen 2019, which qualified her for the state pageant, she received a $250 scholarship. (Last year, she was first runner up in the 2018 Miss Staten Island/Miss Richmond County Outstanding Teen competition, and was awarded a $100 scholarship.)
“When I first got scoliosis, I was really scared of it,” Miss Lawrence said. “All through this competition,” she said, she purposely chose a dress and hairstyle that accentuated her scoliosis. “I wanted to be able to show that I had scoliosis but that doesn’t change anything about me, and it’s made me a stronger person and I can still be confident and wear a beautiful dress with it.”
The night before she won Miss New York Outstanding Teen, Miss Lawrence graduated from Notre Dame Academy High. The following morning she had to be in Peekskill, about a two-hour drive from Staten Island, in time for interview competitions at 8:30 a.m.
Her chosen talent for the pageant competition can be traced back to St. Clare Dance, where she received lessons from ages 2 to 11, and later assisted teaching classes in the parish’s dance program as a high school student. Her penchant for service includes seven years spent as a camp counselor in the parish’s Vacation Bible School.
Notre Dame Academy High, she said, “was probably one of the most transformative” experiences of her life. “It really was about creating a sisterhood, and having conversations, and becoming leaders in our community.” She served as one of the senior dance captains for the annual school musical and for the school dance concert, held leadership positions in student government, attended Empire Girls State and was a member of the National Honor Society.
“I loved my time at St. Clare,” which she attended from preschool to grade 8. “I met some of my lifelong friends there. I definitely became part of the person that I am today from all my teachers, and from all of my classes there.”
Miss Lawrence said her Catholic faith is integral to who she is and what she has accomplished.
“Everything that’s helped me in all aspects of the pageant has been a gift from God,” she said. “There were definitely times when I was getting ready for the pageant that I was terrified to get on stage, terrified to go on my interview. I didn’t think that I could do it, but it was all about having faith in knowing that I was capable of doing anything I set my mind to, and realizing all of the gifts that I do have that I think allowed me to do well in the pageant…
“My faith has definitely played a huge role in everything I’ve done in life. It’s definitely all about having faith in myself, in the Church, in the people around me, and just using those resources to become a better person.”
Approximately an hour after the CNY interview, Miss Lawrence was headed to Washington, D.C., where the next day she reported to campus at George Washington University as an international affairs major. She’ll be home most weekends freshman year to fulfill her duties as Miss New York Outstanding Teen.
A future aspiration is to work at the United Nations.