Sarai Marie Lopez to represent Ocala in Miss Florida Teen USA
Sarai Lopez, 17, Miss Ocala Teen USA, poses for a photo at the Baseline Trailhead in Ocala on Feb. 4, Lopez will be competing in the Miss Florida Teen USA pageant in July. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Sarai Marie Lopez is busy doing the same things many other 17-year-old girls do: studying for the ACT test, applying to colleges, enjoying her senior year as much as possible amid pandemic restrictions and getting a little giggly over K-pop boy band BTS.
She’s also spending all her free time preparing to represent Ocala in the Miss Florida Teen USA competition this summer. The state-level contest held July 16-18 in Orlando will be Lopez’s first pageant.
“I’m very excited,” said Lopez, who recently received her official “Miss Ocala Teen USA” sash.
Lopez admits she is most nervous about “having to walk in high heels the whole time” but said she is grateful for the opportunity to promote her platform.
“I want to make my voice heard,” she said. “I want to bring more recognition to Ocala and to bring awareness about my platform, MIA, which is Minorities in Action.”
Lopez hopes to help young minorities cope with racism through her MIA effort.
With parents from Puerto Rico and El Salvador, the young Latina said she has experienced racism firsthand, even at the private school she attends.
“I am trying to start table talks, getting a group of people to talk about racism and discuss the issues,” she said. “This is not only for minorities; it could be anyone who’s against racism. And I want to start a YouTube channel to start talking to different minorities of different ethnic backgrounds to talk about how they deal with racism and what type of racism they go through.”
In addition to meeting with city officials, including Ocala Police Department Chief Mike Balken and Ocala Fire Rescue Chief Shane Alexander, Lopez has participated in OPD’s first Read, Explore and Discover event and Ocala Public Library’s African American Read-In.
Just a couple of months ago, those kinds of public appearances would have made Lopez nervous. So she began meeting with Jamie Gilmore Jr., the founder of Kut Different, a nonprofit organization for male mentorship, student support and youth development.
“He’s been helping me with everything, especially gaining confidence and talking to people,” Lopez said. “He’s my mentor. He’s awesome.”
Gilmore said he was impressed with Lopez’s MIA initiative and wanted to help.
“Knowing what it’s like to have vision and trying to make that come to life, I just took that full-on and tried to help her out with that,” Gilmore said. “We live in a day and time when most people shy away from uncomfortable conversations, and I think a platform like hers, to get people of different kinds in one room and face what the problem really is, that’s how we can move forward.”
Mentoring a young woman hasn’t been so different from much of the work he does with young men, Gilmore said.
“Mentoring her to be able to walk with confidence and walk into the space she’s entering, I felt I was equipped with those skills, to give her leadership-type skills and the skills to be able to not worry, to control what you control,” he said.
Lopez said local sponsors, including Anytime Fitness on Baseline Road, her fitness sponsor, and Today’s Male at Paddock Mall, which is providing her evening gown, have made it possible for her to participate in the pageant, which costs a contestant nearly $2,000. She’s asking other local businesses to consider sponsoring her through the Miss Florida Teen USA website.
Lopez, who plans to study education in college and eventually teach English in South Korea, sees competing against 50 to 60 other teenage girls in her first-ever pageant as a way to gain experience and hopes it may lead to some career connections.
“This pageant means a lot to me because it will open doors and opportunities for me to grow as an individual and pursue my life goals,” she said.