"Oh, freedom is mine
"And I know how I feel.
"It's a new dawn.
"It's a new day.
"It's a new life for me.
"And I'm feeling good."
Brookstone School graduate Bria Kalpen of Phenix City sang those words from "Feeling Good" by Nina Simone to help her win the title as the 2015 Distinguished Young Woman of Alabama in January and, five months later, finish as a top 10 national finalist.
The song isn't just a pretty tune that matches her voice now. It has more meaning for her and her mother, Paula Reed, and summarizes their journey.
"Even though we have gone through all these obstacles," Bria said, "it hasn't stopped me from being free to do all of these things. It's definitely made it harder, because we've had to scrape around to get things together so that I could be able to do everything I've aspired to do, but it never completely put anything to a halt because we prayed about it and we both believed that we could get through it, and we've somehow found a way to just make it."
Reed, held back tears as she explained what her daughter's success means to her.
"It just shows that all that she has worked hard for has not been done in vain," she said. "Everything that I've done to get her to this point has not been done in vain. I'm extremely proud of her because she never let anything get in her way. I mean, the obstacles, the trials and tribulations we've been through the past four or five years, did not stop her and it didn't stop me."
'I just wanted a crown'
Bria wanted to compete in pageants ever since she brought home flyers about the competitions when she was in kindergarten.
"I just wanted a crown," she said. "From watching Miss America and stuff like that, I wanted to put on a dress and get on the stage."
Bria finally got her chance when she was 9 years old and her mother allowed her to enter her first pageant. Although it was her first time being on stage and speaking in front of judges and an audience, she won the Junior Miss Phenix City title.
"It boosted my confidence level and made me want to continue," she said.
The next three years, she competed in the National American Miss program. She didn't win the state crown but finished as runner-up and won several categories, including casual wear and acting.
Bria then moved up to the Miss America's Outstanding Teen program. At 13, she became Miss Phenix City's Outstanding Teen. For the next five years, she traveled the state to compete in local preliminaries and qualify for the state pageant. She again didn't win a state crown but took home another runner-up prize.
After aging out of that program, she heard about Distinguished Young Women, which offered more scholarship money. She also likes that DYW allows participants to compete on the local level only in the county of residence, so schlepping around the state wasn't required. But because Russell County didn't have a DYW program, she was granted a spot in the 2014 Mongtomery competition as an at-large entrant. There, she received a benchmark score to qualify for the state event.
On Jan. 15, Bria won the state categories in talent, interview and self-expression - and the overall 2015 state title. She collected $12,000 in cash scholarships and advanced to the national competition, held in June in Mobile, Ala.
"After not winning state in Outstanding Teen, I just went to (DYW) to have a good time and not be so focused on winning," she said. "I was so focused on trying to win before and putting so much work into, I probably just overdid it. But I was more relaxed about it then, and it was a really happy moment. I finally accomplished what I'd been trying to accomplish. Even though it was a different program, I finally won a state title."
At the DYW national competition, Bria won category awards in self-expression and interview, as well as the AL.com daily diary award, on the way to finishing as a top 10 national finalist and receiving another $5,500 in cash scholarships.
"The competition was much stiffer in that each girl was the best of the best in her state," she said, "but the experience goes down as some of the most fun I've ever had."
According to its website, Distinguished Young Women, formerly known as Junior Miss, is the largest and oldest national scholarship program for high school girls. It has awarded a total of more than $100 million in cash scholarships to more than 730,000 participants since 1958. Participants also are eligible for grants from nearly 200 colleges or universities, which totaled more than $365 million last year.
Participants are judged in the following categories: scholastics (25 percent), interview (25 percent), talent (20 percent), fitness (15 percent) and self-expression (15 percent).
Reed insists she hasn't been among the notorious "pageant moms" who push their daughters to vicariously shine in the spotlight.
"Bria knew, from Day One, if you get tired of doing this, just let me know," Reed said.
The total cost of competing in the pageants, Reed estimated, has been around $15,000 per year.
"We did get donations and stuff like that," she said, "but it offset just a minute part of the cost. Sometimes the expenses got overwhelming, but I did it for the betterment of my child, because I wanted her to have the opportunities growing up that I didn't have and the opportunities to get a better education."
Bria received an honors scholarship to attend Brookstone School, starting in ninth grade after going to Smiths Station schools K-8. She confided in Kimberly Lowe, a friend from church who became like a big sister, that she was unsure about making the leap.
"She was reluctant to leave her friends," said Kimberly, a 2007 graduate of Russell County High School, now a patient access representative for St. Francis Hospital. "I just encouraged her to take advantage of all those opportunities at Brookstone."
"It was a hard transition because it's completely different than what I was used to," Bria said, "but, at the end of the day, I'm really glad I got to experience that."
Later that fall of 2011, Reed fell behind in mortgage payments and lost the Smiths Station house in which she and Bria lived for 12 years.
"I made sacrifices to get her to the level she is right now," Reed said. "Because of that, it was hard for me to kind of juggle paying my bills."
A health issue compounded her expenses. So did giving money to a relative. All of which led to bankruptcy.
"I never thought, in a million years, I'd see myself in that type of predicament, because I always was a good manager of money," said Reed, who then was an assistant store manager at Lowe's Home Improvement. "I saved. I had stock. I had 401(k). I was just somebody who could always account for every penny because I kept a ledger of my expenses."
But it wasn't enough to avoid having to tell her daughter they were leaving their house and moving into a Phenix City apartment.
"Extremely hard," Reed called it.
"I was upset," Bria said. "I didn't want to leave where I'd been most of my life. So it was difficult, and I wasn't really too fond of the idea about moving to an apartment - especially going to Brookstone, where all your friends have ginormous houses and nice things, and you have to tell your friends that you're moving but you can't really explain why because you don't want to be like the poor kid hanging out with everyone."
She never was embarrassed, however, to bring friends to her apartment and have them sleep over.
"Going to Brookstone, you know how teenagers are, you feel like you have an image to uphold," Reed said. "But with everything that has happened to me, none of the kids even judged her."
Two years later, in 2013, Reed had to handle another setback. She lost her job at Lowe's, where she worked for 13 years but got caught in a management change.
"In the middle of me trying to regroup and get myself together financially," Reed said, "that happened."
Her voice trailed off as she began to cry. She credits the help of her mother and other relatives, as well as her boyfriend at the time, now her fiancé, Steven Carlot, who works at the Walmart distribution center in LaGrange.
"That was my strong support," she said. "That kept us afloat."
So did Bria's job. She started working as a server at Country's Barbecue the summer before her junior year, a few months before her mother lost her job. She also works as a brand representative for the Hollister clothing store.
"It try to keep myself as less of a financial burden -- not a burden but not have her keep giving me money," Bria said.
"It was a huge help," Reed said of her daughter's income. "That spring before I lost my job, I just had braces put on her teach and I just bought a brand-new car. I was really slowly getting myself established, back on credit. I thought everything was going well."
So she had to break bad news again to her daughter. When she came home from school, Bria asked her mother why she was home already.
"Have a seat," Reed told her daughter. "I have something to tell you. I lost my job, but don't worry about it. Everything's going to be OK. I've got money saved up. I've got my 401(k). I've got my severance package."
"She said everything's going to be OK," Bria said, "and every time she's said that, everything eventually has been OK."
'Meant to be'
Actually, losing her job became a blessing in disguise. If she still worked at Lowe's, she would have earned too much money for Bria to be eligible for the full-ride scholarship - more than $60,000 per year -- she received from Northwestern University through the QuestBridge National College Match, which connects the world's highest-achieving low-income students to America's most selective colleges. In 2014, she was one of 501 students chosen out of 11,654 applicants.
"God works in mysterious ways," Reed said. " That was probably meant to be. It was meant to happen. That's what kind of helped me to remain positive about it."
When she started realizing she was getting in financial trouble, Reed didn't put the brakes on the pageants because "I guess we were so deep into it."
"It's like addicting," Bria said. "You can't stop in the middle of it ..."
Bria has received more than $500,000 in scholarship money through the pageants, Reed said. "Even though she's not going to use it because she's going to Northwestern (on scholarship), at the time, that was the kickback: 'OK, I don't have to worry about her education.'"
Unfortunately, she can't use that scholarship money from the pageants for graduate school, and she can't give it to someone else.
"My friends are always joking, 'Just give me some of yours,'" Bria said.
She started in the pageants to pursue a crown and wear glamorous dresses on stage. But the scholarship money and meaningful experiences became more important.
"At the end of the day, everybody doesn't win, but everybody gets something," she said. "I've met some of my best friends doing this. Interview skills, being able to handle myself on stage, stage presence, poise, being able to conduct an interview, having better speaking skills, connections with people. Through this organization, we know so many people around the state and around the country. If I need something and I know someone is able to provide a service, I can easily hit them up on Facebook and give them a call."
Kaylen Long attended Brookstone with Bria and saw her blossom from not fitting in to making a niche for herself.
"She was definitely different and stood out," Kaylen said. " She wasn't as socially conscious as everyone else and didn't care if you liked her or not because she had bigger things to care about."
In addition to the pageants, Bria's busy schedule included cheerleading, chorus, school TV and newspaper, tutoring at Open Door Community Center, volunteering at the VA Hospital in Tuskegee and the Midtown Medical Center in Columbus and working as a server at Country's Barbecue. She also founded the school's Cougars 4 Kids Club, which collected more than $5,000 in coins for the Children's Miracle Network from 2007-13.
Despite those time commitments, Bria earned a 4.4 weighted grade-point average, a 1900 on the SAT and a 30 on the ACT.
"I could never be like every other teenager," she said. "I'm myself, so I would never want to be like everyone else, but I remember there were times when we were going four weekends in a row trying to win a local preliminary so I could go back to state, and my friends would have birthday parties and hanging out at football games. I was a cheerleader I would have a pageant on Saturday mornings, so I would be cheering but I couldn't use my voice."
Freshman year, a friend asked her to the homecoming dance, her first dance at her new school. Two weeks before the date, she had to cancel because of a pageant.
"I would miss out on different things," she said, "but looking back on it, I don't regret that. It was worth missing out on some things because I gained so much."
Kimberly called Bria "always a very determined child and self-motivated. Yes, she has a great mother and grandmother and grandfather, a great support system, but even in the middle of everything, she has stayed very focused.
"The really amazing thing to me is that she has done so much and done so much very well. A lot of people can go out and do a lot of things but not very well."
'I'm only 18'
Bria intends to major in broadcasting at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. She wants to be a foreign correspondent and later an investigative journalist or news anchor for a major network, specializing in international politics and social issues. She also wants to start a company that produces documentaries and other films.
Before that, you might see her on TV during Northwestern's college football or basketball games. She was selected for the university's cheerleading squad.
Based on what she saw of her at Brookstone, Kaylen believes Bria will continue to succeed.
"She was surrounded by the elite of Columbus, where everyone is spending money like it's nothing, and she's paying her own bills," said Kaylen, who will major in political science and international affairs at Mercer University. "She knows what she can have, she had a glimpse, and I feel like she will have that life too."
Meanwhile, Reed has worked part-time jobs and started a cleaning business, Premier One Cleaning Service, while going back to college. She is on track to graduate with an associate's degree in medical assistance from Virginia College of Columbus in September. She also plans to finish the six online courses she needs to earn a bachelor's degree in human resources from Capella University.
"A parent should always embrace their child's dreams and goals and aspirations in life," Reed said. "They need to be a support factor to help them achieve those goals. Don't do anything that's going to hold them back."
"Everything happens for a reason," Bria said, "and all of the circumstances that we have had to overcome have happened so that my life and her life can form in a way that's supposed to happen.
"We still have a long way to go," Bria added with a laugh. "I'm only 18. But so far, everything has come out for the better."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.