On her seventh birthday, a civil war broke out on the street in front of Lischen Reeves’ home.
The frightened little girl and her older siblings were ushered into a closet by their mother where they huddled together, wincing at the shots fired outside.
It was one of the most heart-wrenching moments of Reeves’ life.
Now, more than 15 years later, the 23-year-old woman is representing her homeland of Liberia in a national pageant and working to build libraries in the country.
Reeves, a 2006 graduate of Olathe East, was recently named Miss Liberia and she will compete against 19 other women at the Miss Africa USA pageant in Washington, D.C., in June.
The competition was established in 2005 in Atlanta for immigrants from African countries and their daughters.
Reflecting on her life, the Overland Park resident still can’t believe the direction her life has headed so far. Competing for a crown while dressed like a princess is a far cry from the unforgiving violence she witnessed as a young child.
After civil war practically erupted on her front lawn in 1996, Reeves’ family won a visa lottery to immigrate to the United States. They settled in Olathe.
Reeves is currently a reading teacher at Alta Vista Charter Middle School in Kansas City. She is also a second-year graduate student, working online toward a master’s degree in secondary education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
She discovered the Miss Africa USA pageant while browsing online a year ago. She decided to enter so she could give a boost to her family’s non-profit organization, the Children Life Time Educational Foundation.
The foundation, which was co-founded by Reeves, her mom and her aunts, raises money to build libraries in Liberia.
The work fits right into the core of the pageant, in which each contestant must prepare a humanitarian project that helps a community in need in Africa or the United States.
“It’s important that people understand my foundation was not created merely for this pageant,” Reeves said. “This foundation is my livelihood, and it’s so awesome I get to use it. It’s hard for a non-profit to get the word out to the masses, and this will help a lot.”
When Reeves sailed through the semi-final round in Maryland on Dec. 1, she was stunned. After all, she never considered herself a beauty pageant woman.
“At semi-finals, I was surrounded by tall, gorgeous and strong women who truly embody Africa,” said Reeves, who is 5 foot 3. “They have such a glow. They walk into a room and everyone stares at them in awe.”
She also learned that there is more to pageants than meets the eye.
“When people think of a beauty pageant, they probably only think of a bunch of pretty girls on a stage,” Reeves said. “But there is so much work that goes on behind the scenes. You need confidence and poise and grace — the entire package.”
Plus, beauty isn’t the only aspect each contestant is required to have. Brains are the most valuable asset of the Miss Africa USA pageant. At semi-finals, Reeves met aspiring doctors, lawyers and politicians.
Miss Africa USA organizers say winners have sent hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medical equipment to African hospitals, volunteer at orphanages and advocate for millions of African women and children.
And even if she doesn’t win the crown, Reeves believes she is going to take home something more important: inspiration.
“Each of these girls has such passion, such admirable goals to make life better in her homeland and her community here,” Reeves said. “As a young African girl, it really motivates me to achieve my dream.”