Fort Mill Times

Strawberry Festival contestants promote social causes

SarahMargaret McGuirt wants to help make mental health awareness and education commonplace in society and inspire those who suffer with mental health related conditions to speak up, and their friends and neighbors to speak out in support.

Alli Waataja wants to encourage Fort Mill children to read.

Both are competing in the 2016 S.C. Strawberry Festival Pageant April 30.

The Pageant is the first event in the string of events leading up to the May 6-7 main weekend of Fort Mill’s official spring festival.

McGuirt is a fourth-generation Fort Mill native and graduate of Fort Mill High School and the College of Charleston. The 23-year-old will compete for the pageant’s “Miss” title. She was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder as a sophomore in college. Research shows that people are most often diagnosed with a mental illness between the ages of 18-27.

“It’s a sensitive and weird time in people’s lives,” McGuirt said.

She shared the information of her diagnosis with very few people at first. McGuirt even competed and won first runner-up in the Strawberry Pageant two years ago under a different platform.

“I was at the point where I still didn’t want to talk about it,” she said.

When McGuirt began to open up about her anxiety, she realized her diagnosis is common and that taking medicine and going to therapy – both of which she said helped her – was nothing to be ashamed of.

“The stigma and shaming causes people not to seek treatment,” she said.

McGuirt will be starting a degree program for physical therapy at Winthrop University in July and hopes to charter a chapter of Active Minds, an organization that brings awareness to mental health issues.

The contestant also said she hopes she can be an inspiration to others.

“I have to be honest in order to help someone else. Maybe someone will say, ‘If she can stand up there and say ‘hey, I have this,’ then I can go get help,’” she said.

Literacy platform

“Reach Out & Read” – that’s what Nation Ford High School senior Alli Waataja wants to encourage Fort Mill children to do.

Waataja, 18, will compete for the “Miss” title in the pageant to put a focus on early childhood literacy in the community. Reach Out & Read is a nationwide initiative to help prepare young children for school by putting an emphasis on reading.

RRAR started to solve a problem – a lack of books in many pediatricians’ waiting rooms. It grew to include doctors and nurses handing out free books to children at well visits and encouraging parents to read to their children beginning at birth. The organization now serves an estimated 4.5 million children a year.

There are nearly 5,000 RRAR sites nationwide and 161 chapters in South Carolina, but none in Fort Mill.

Waataja wants to change that.

By starting a RRAR chapter, Waataja hopes that many more area children will have access to books. She would also like to see more Little Free Libraries pop up around town, like the one dedicated recently at Harris Street Park.

“My parents read to me all the time. I want other children to have that positive and healthy love for reading,” she said.

Kelly Lessard:, @KellyLessardFMT

Want to go?

The S.C. Strawberry Festival Pageant will be held April 30 at Nation Ford High School. For more about the pageant and other S.C. Strawberry Festival events, go to