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A very personal mission; Miss America's family history forms message to children

Reigning Miss America Laura Kaeppeler does not shy away from her father's prison past.

In fact, it's an integral part of Kaeppeler's personal platform as Miss America, which is to advocate on behalf of children who have a parent that either is or has been incarcerated.

The 24-year-old raven-haired beauty was in Buffalo on Wednesday for two Peaceprints Prison Ministries events held at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, 641 Delaware Ave. She was scheduled to interact with some local children whose parents have been incarcerated and later meet with local business and community leaders to talk about the services that Peaceprints provides to formerly incarcerated individuals seeking to transition back into the community.

"In sharing my story, I let children of incarcerated parents know that, whatever their background, it doesn't have to define their future," said Kaeppeler, who hails from Kenosha, Wis.

When Kaeppeler was 17 years old, her father began serving an 18-month prison sentence after being convicted of mail fraud.

"Everyone in my small town knew, but no one had any experiences with a parent going to prison, so they couldn't relate to me going to visit my father in prison on the weekends. It was isolating and embarrassing," she recalled.

"Fortunately, I've never received any negative commentary by sharing my story. I think people respect the message of overcoming adversity," Kaeppeler added.

Her message was not lost on 7-year-old Na'ima Flores of Buffalo, whose father, Juan, completed a prison sentence four years ago and is a graduate of Peaceprints' job and counseling program for formerly incarcerated individuals. Na'ima and 14-year-old Shania Brenon of Pendleton decorated some paper Christmas ornaments with Kaeppeler Wednesday and took turns wearing her crown. Na'ima said they are already seeking to follow in Kaeppeler's footsteps.

"Yes, we both do beauty pageants," Na'ima said.

Kaeppeler, a former Miss Wisconsin, was crowned Miss America 2012 on Jan. 14. She is a 2010 graduate of Carthage College in Kenosha and plans to use the $50,000 scholarship she won as Miss America to attend law school once her reign is over.

"I plan to study family law," she said.

As Miss America, Kaeppeler has traveled thousands of miles for personal appearances around the country to advance her personal platform. By the time her yearlong reign ends, she estimated that she will have spent about 340 days on the road.

"It's the equivalent to a presidential campaign tour, except you already hold the title," Kaeppeler joked.