In March, another one of 18-year-old Ashley Hall's dreams came true when she was crowned Miss North Florida 2010. It was the third pageant Ashley had entered in the past two years and the first that she’s won. Finally, she felt, her life was headed in the right direction.
Pageant contestants are required to select a platform and the winner is required to promote that cause throughout her reign. Ashley chose juvenile delinquency prevention and it is a cause near and dear to her young heart.
"I do a lot of public speaking about juvenile delinquency. I have spoken at the Tallahassee Detention Center twice recently. I have spoken at churches, to high school students and at rallies," she said.
She doesn't talk about what it takes to enter and win pageants. Ashley talks about what it feels like, at 14, to hear a prosecutor call you a "menace to society" and what it takes to transform yourself from a teenager on the road to prison to a college student who is leading a productive life.
"When I speak to kids, the first thing I do is show them my mug shots. I have four of them. I want them to know that I know what I'm talking about when I tell them that a bad attitude, not listening and wanting to grow up too fast is a sure way to get into trouble," she said.
Ashley grew up in the St. John Community, about 5 miles north of the Quincy city limits. In elementary school, she was a model student and was always, she said, on the Principal's List. In middle school, things began to change for Ashley as she rejected authority, especially her mother, and became rebellious.
At 14, Ashley met a 16-year-old boy with whom she thought, at the time, she was in love. She said she wanted to spend all of her time with the boy and would often go to his house. Her mother felt she was spending too much time at the boy's home and told her the visits didn't have to stop but they had to be cut back. And there would be no more overnight stays, despite permission from the boy's mother.
"I wanted to do what I wanted to do and what I wanted to do was be with him," she said.
When she disobeyed her mother's orders to come home again, a deputy was called and sent to pick her up and bring her home. That made her angry and when Deputy Paul McMichael placed her in the back of his patrol unit, she took her majorette's baton and started beating on the glass. She also let loose a string of profanities. When McMichael reached for the baton, he was struck in the knee. That's when she found out what battery on a law enforcement officer meant. It was also when she experienced law enforcement, juvenile court, the juvenile justice center and the foster care system for the first time.
"Before long, all the police and deputies knew me. Deputy (Greg) McSwain knew me so well that he would just say 'I'll take it' when my name up on dispatch," she said.
One day, she recalled, she had gone to her boyfriend's house and another girl was there. The two got into an altercation and a deputy was called.
“He was standing there looking as us fight and laughing at us. I was hurt pretty bad and had to go to the hospital," Ashley said,
When her mother arrived on the scene, tempers flared and her mother and the girl began fighting. Ashley and her mother were both charged with aggravated battery. Her troubles, however, were compounded because she had violated probation from her charge of battery on a law enforcement officer less than a year earlier.
Her cousin, Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young, whom she calls her uncle, didn't have much success with Ashley either. He said she would call for help and when he asked her pertinent questions, her answers were not very ladylike and she usually hung up on him.
The fights continued and looking back, the beauty queen said, her troubles can almost all be traced back to the boy she loved. The fights, disobeying her mother's rules, skipping school or leaving campus to accompany him to get a haircut all added up to her first stint in the juvenile detention center. Disobeying her mother was causing friction at home and she wanted to move out. Her mother could no longer handle her and she lived with friends' parents and in foster care.
Ashley said that one day she "turned out" a counselor's office at the local Department of Children and Families office.
"She wouldn't listen to what I had to say and I just went off on her. I was ready to fight her and when the police came, I was ready to fight them, too. It wasn't until about 2 years later that I realized that at the time I had an anger management problem," she said.
"The first time they brought me to court in handcuffs and shackles, I was so ashamed and so embarrassed," she said. “The second time wasn't so bad."
Ashley said she came before Judge Angela Dempsey and three days before her 16th birthday, Dempsey sentenced her to a new program in Graceville called Dove Academy. Programs at the academy were designed for moderate-risk girls.
"They told me it was for 6 months but they dropped a bomb on me. When I got there, I was told it was for 12 to 18 months. I felt like a little bird who couldn't fly anymore. I cried for a week because I was the only person there for the first week. Then other girls started to arrive, cliques formed and I started back up again with the fighting," she said.
Her favorite uncle died and because of her fighting, she was not allowed to go home for the service. There a was another girl from Gadsden County in the program who gave Ashley good advice. The girl told her that if she didn't try to behave and learn she was going to be there after everybody who came into the program with her was gone.
Ashley listened to that advice, and went on to earn her GED, she passed the FCAT and, at age 16, had all of the state-required credits. She wanted to go to college to become a newscaster. She also wanted to be in pageants and she wanted to win.
"Every girl wants to be a queen," she said.
After a few months out of detention, she began to get her educational life in shape and enrolled online at Ashland University. The old boyfriend was out of her life for good.
A few months after she returned home, Ashley, then 17, met former Miss Florida Teen USA and current Miss Florida USA Anastagia Pierre. The young woman became her role model.
"She told me to keep my self esteem high, finish school and build a strong relationship with my mother. She also encouraged me to enter pageants if that's what I wanted to do. The first pageant I entered was the Miss Tallahassee Teen, then I entered the Miss Tallahassee USA and last month, I entered the Miss North Florida USA pageant and won," she said.
Ashley wanted to win so badly she promised God that if she won, she would come back to the community to help other young girls who have made bad choices.
"My theme is 'For The Love Of Me' and it's at the center of what I call the 'Five-S Dimensions' that I have developed. Those are self esteem, self image, self confidence, self control and success. When I finish speaking they'll come up and ask how I overcame juvenile delinquency and why did I commit the charges," she said.
On Sunday night Ashley will be glued to the television when Anastagia Pierre will compete in the Miss USA pageant, representing Florida.
"I'm just hoping she wins," she said.