Performing, Pageantry, and Philanthropy
Elena LaQuatra, 16 years old, was born with normal hearing and enjoyed being the center of attention by acting, dancing, singing and putting on shows for her family and friends. All of that abruptly changed shortly after her 4th birthday when she contracted bacterial meningitis, which left her with a profound hearing loss. Two cochlear implant surgeries and ten months later, Elena was finally able to hear again. Within three months of regaining her hearing, she was on stage in a professional production at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pa., as the “baby rat” in an upbeat, musical version of the “Pied Piper.”
Since that time, and with the help of her family and friends, Elena has immersed herself in what she loves to do: the study of acting, dancing and performing arts, and giving back to the community. She is an accomplished actress and dancer, having now performed in over 30 professional theatrical productions with over a dozen different theater companies in the Pittsburgh and surrounding areas; performed with the Moscow Ballet; studied dance with the Radio City Rockettes; choreographed professional productions; and studied dance with some of Broadway’s best choreographers and some of the best tappers in the world. Additionally, she has appeared in movies and commercials, just having completed a public service announcement promoting early detection for hearing loss. She has won the prestigious Pittsburgh Public Theater Shakespeare monologue contest, a feat that many normal-hearing children and young adults have strived to achieve. In addition, on March 20, 2008, Camp Fire USA honored Elena as a “Champion of Kids” for all of the community service and time she has dedicated to making the community a better place for children.
A frequent recipient of AG Bell scholarship awards, Elena credits much of her success to the training she received in the arts and the support she received from her parents, AG Bell and others who have believed in her.
Miss Pennsylvania Outstanding Teen
When Elena was 10 years old, she performed at a fundraiser for the DePaul School for Hearing and Speech, an oral-deaf education school she had previously attended. That day, she met Heather Whitestone, Miss America 1995, and her life changed forever. Heather was not only beautiful, but she was also funny, nice and inspirational. Like Elena, Heather has lived with a hearing loss for most of her life and uses a cochlear implant to hear – Elena had someone she could relate to. After their meeting, Elena vowed to also be an inspiration and to someday impact others the way Heather impacted her, and to work towards becoming a Miss America herself.
On June 22, 2007, Elena achieved a milestone toward this goal when she was crowned Miss Pennsylvania Outstanding Teen (the Outstanding Teen Pageant is the “sister teen pageant” to the Miss America organization). Winning her state title gave her the opportunity to compete in the national pageant in Orlando, Fla., where she won the preliminary evening gown competition and placed second runner up in the finals. For her talent, Elena performed a high energy tap dance routine to “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from the musical “Hairspray.” She chose “oral-deaf education...finding your voice” for her platform, although Elena likes to say that her platform chose her!
As the reigning Miss Pennsylvania Outstanding Teen, Elena has spent the last year traveling throughout her state and nationally promoting her platform, as well as numerous other charitable causes. Her weekends are filled with appearances, events, speeches, performances and autograph sessions.She has also served as the Master of Ceremonies for eight pageants in 2007 alone!
In January, Elena was invited to Las Vegas, Nev., to attend the Miss America Pageant. There, she met up with other state teen titleholders,“her sister titleholders,” who were all invited by the Miss America organization to attend the pageant. Her role model, Heather Whitestone, was also in attendance. During Miss America week, Elena was selected to present the first ever “Miss Photogenic Award,” which required her to give a lengthy speech to announce the purpose and winner of the award. In attendance were the Miss America Board of Directors, state pageant executive and local directors, the Miss America contestants, their friends and families, and numerous dignitaries. It was all in a day’s work for Elena, who stated “I was a little nervous, but not about the speech. Rather, I was afraid I would trip on my way up to give my speech, since I was wearing a very long gown with a train. Once I started speaking, I was perfectly comfortable.”
Advocating for a Cause
In spite of all her successes in the performing arts and on the pageantry circuit, Elena’s greatest passion is her community service.“Naturally, I am an advocate of causes benefiting those who are deaf and hard of hearing, which is my pageant platform.”
Elena advocates on behalf of the DePaul School for Hearing and Speech and visits as often as she can to talk to the kids and empower them to be anything that they want to be. Elena initiated a program called “Speaking Through My Deaf Ears,” which she tries to incorporate into all of her speeches when visiting children with disabilities or in disadvantaged situations.Earlier this month, at the request of the Pennsylvania State Secretary of Education, Elena visited children in the Harrisburg-area schools where she read to them and encouraged them to overcome any handicaps or disadvantages and to believe in themselves that they can become anything they want. “I just have compassion for people.”
Elena has proven to be very effective with her advocacy efforts. Elena was chosen to be one of 23 girls in Allegheny County, Pa., known as the “Allegheny County Girls as Grantmakers.” The girls are a racially,socially and economically diverse group who serve as mentors to young teenage girls, awarding them grant money to put toward programs that empower them to make a difference in their communities. This is the same group that successfully protested against Abercrombie & Fitch for the controversial t-shirt line they were selling, causing the corporate giant to pull them off their shelves. “It was amazing that 23 teenagers could take on a company as big as Abercrombie & Fitch and have such an impact. I was proud and honored to know that every single person can make a difference.”
One of Elena’s most memorable experiences was in Lewistown,Pa., for an event called “Kid Connection.” Her job was to let the kids try on her crown and allow their parents to take pictures. When she met Tyana Ridley,a 3-year-old with gorgeous brown curls and big green eyes, she recognized Tyana’s cochlear implant right away but wondered why she didn’t speak. Elena discussed her experience at an oral-deaf education school with Tyana’s mother, Christy, and how it had benefited her spoken language skills. Later, Elena found out that Christy and Tyana had packed up all of their belongings and moved four hours from home to Pittsburgh, Pa., so Tyana could attend DePaul,the same school that Elena attended. To know that she directly impacted someone’s life really touched Elena. During another pageant appearance in Lewistown, Elena honored Tyana with a poem she wrote and a miniature crown, naming Tyana her very own personal princess.
Elena sums up her experience powerfully: “I am very thankful to AG Bell for all of their support and the encouragement they have given me all of these years. They have enabled me to live my dreams. And while I still intend to follow my ultimate dream of becoming a neonatologist/pediatrician, my performing arts background has enhanced my life a thousand times over. I know in my heart that I can be anyone I want to be and that I can do anything I set my heart on. I have been inspired by Heather Whitestone and so many others who have overcome obstacles and yet, achieved great things in their life. I want to pass that inspiration on. On my last visit to the DePaul School, one of the little boys, who had both vision and hearing loss, told me I was his inspiration. To know that I have touched or changed lives for the better is what it is all about. To me, my crown shines its brightest when I can use it to help others.”
Elena is still too young to compete in the Miss America program, but says that dream is still on her agenda. And with everything this teen has accomplished, the sky is the limit!