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Miss Arkansas 2018 Claudia Raffo: The Journey to the Crown
By Audrey Hanes, Photography by Amy Long

Claudia Raffo entered her first pageant at the age of 17 and won the title of Miss Lights of the Delta. Five years later, the new Miss Arkansas is looking forward to competing in the Miss America Competition in September and appreciates the opportunity to travel the state of Arkansas to spread awareness about the organization and her platform.

Although her title going into the 81st annual Miss Arkansas Scholarship Pageant was Miss Historic Batesville, Raffo moved to Jonesboro in 2007 when her dad, Tommy, took the head baseball coach position at Arkansas State University. The Nettleton High School and A-State graduate says she loved her teenage and college experience in Jonesboro and is thankful for the local support she has received over the years, which she has felt from her very first competition at age 17.

“I entered a preliminary pageant in 2013 called Miss Lights of the Delta, which is in Blytheville, and I entered because I heard the Miss America system was the largest scholarship provider to young women in the nation,” said Raffo. “I knew I wanted to go to college at Arkansas State, and I knew I eventually wanted to go to pharmacy school, which is a huge financial investment. I have two younger siblings, so I didn’t want to put that financial investment on my parents. I had a performance talent; I’ve been dancing competitive dance since I was probably eight years old, so the only thing I really had to prepare for was an interview. So, I went into Miss Lights of the Delta and won and went to Miss Arkansas and had a really good experience my first year.”

She walked away that year with a little more than $3,000, prompting her to enter Miss Northeast Arkansas the next year, during which she earned more than $9,000 in scholarships. She then took a year off to enjoy school, the dance team and her sorority. It was also the year she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

“I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 19; I was a sophomore in college,” said Raffo. “I really learned a lot about my body and how to take care of myself. I learned about how to take care of myself despite a disease I’ll have the rest of my life.”

Last year, she came back to Miss Arkansas and finished the competition as fourth runner up.

“I decided to compete one more time before pharmacy school, and I am just really excited to say that not only is my undergraduate degree at Arkansas State paid off, three years of pharmacy school are, too,” said Raffo after being crowned Miss Arkansas 2018. “When I won, I was very overwhelmed with emotions. I competed for four years, but I have been around the organization for five, so I think that (while) I was relieved all my hard work paid off, I also felt this immense pressure knowing that not only would I represent Arkansas at Miss America, but I would be traveling around the state being the face of the Miss Arkansas system, which is such a huge responsibility in itself.”

Raffo says that what she is most looking forward to about her year as Miss Arkansas 2018 is the opportunity to share her platform, “New Life Saves Life:  Umbilical Cord Donation,” with everyone in the state she proudly represents.

“I’m really excited about my platform and my social impact of sharing that with Arkansas,” she said. “If it’s free to donate your child’s cord, every expectant mother in Arkansas should know that.”
The 2018 Miss Arkansas’ cause is near and dear to her heart because umbilical cord donation extended her grandma’s life during her third battle with cancer.

“When I had to pick a platform for the Miss America system when I started competing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I really knew what I wanted to focus on,” said Raffo. “When I was 11, my grandmother (Hattie) was diagnosed with cancer for the third time. She had had breast cancer, then Hodgkin lymphoma and then she was diagnosed with leukemia. Because of the radiation from her two previous cancers, she needed a bone marrow transplant but couldn’t find a match through the national bone marrow registry, and none of her family members were a match. So, she underwent an experimental procedure using umbilical cord blood to have a stem cell replacement, which extended her life nine months before she passed away from the leukemia.

“Now, it’s a standard procedure that’s used for over 80 kinds of blood disorders. So, I really have spent my time over the years with the Miss Arkansas Organization speaking to expectant mothers in Arkansas. It’s absolutely free to donate your child’s umbilical cord after a live, healthy birth, you just have to make that decision before the third trimester. … I really love, also, to talk to men and women 18 and above about signing up to be on the national bone marrow registry. My Hattie couldn’t find a match, but the more people who are on that registry, the more opportunities others have to find a match eventually.”

Raffo says that donating umbilical cords is easy and free. It can be used for research purposes, or it can be used to help another person. For more information, go to Raffo’s website, Hattiesmatch.com.

After deferring her admittance to pharmacy school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences until her time as Miss Arkansas is completed, Raffo will be able to spend the next year sharing her platform and her passion for the Miss America organization all across Arkansas. She will also serve as an ambassador for Arkansas Children’s Hospital and will help raise funds for Children’s Miracle Network.

“I’ll be traveling the state of Arkansas speaking to schools, civic organizations and churches; you name it, I’ll probably be there,” said Raffo. “One of the biggest things I’m excited for is the cheese dip festival in Arkansas; it’s already on my calendar. I’ll be making appearances and really putting the Miss Arkansas Organization out there and showing people it’s not just about a crown and a sash; it’s about a platform, it’s about developing those effective communication skills and, most importantly for me, it’s about scholarships – investing in your future and being able to walk away and say that your school is paid for after your year.”

Before she begins traveling the state, Raffo will first head to Atlantic City, N.J., where she will compete in the 2019 Miss America Competition. Three nights of preliminary competition will take place at Boardwalk Hall before the Miss America Show Us Your Shoes Parade on Sept. 8 and the live, televised competition on Sept. 9.

“Right now, until Sept. 9, there will be a lot of Miss America prep,” said Raffo. “I’ll have a lot of meetings with people in Arkansas who are very influential in politics or in healthcare or in anything I could be asked about in the interview portion of Miss America. A lot of important interview prep, a lot of talent prep and, most importantly, a lot of time to mentally get ready for the two weeks that I’ll spend in Atlantic City.”

Raffo says she is excited to bring a little piece of Jonesboro with her to Atlantic City for the parade. Although she is saving hers for a surprise, she said contestants typically bring something that describes them, their platform or their state.

She says her experiences the past several years have made her stronger in many ways and have prepared her for her year as Miss Arkansas and the upcoming Miss America Competition.

“The biggest thing I’ve gotten out of (competing) is the ability to express my thoughts and communicate effectively,” said Raffo. “A huge portion of the Miss America system is the interview part, and it’s so crucial. You have a private interview with a panel before you ever step foot on stage; those are the moments they really get to see who you are as a person. They ask you about everything from your favorite color to what you think of the president to ‘Can you tell me a little about your social impact platform?’ You get to really have that one-on-one time and get to make an impression on them, so it’s really important to say everything you want to say in the time that’s allotted.

“… The Miss America program is changing to social impacts instead of platforms. That’s such a huge part of our system – finding something that you really love, getting out in your community and really making a statement about it. It’s something you have to develop and be able to talk to people about.”

Raffo says she is so thankful to her friends, family and the Jonesboro community for all their support over the years.

“I really did feel all the love after I was crowned,” she said. “I’m proud to be from Jonesboro.”

She is especially appreciative of her parents, Tommy and Paula, her sister, Anna, a sophomore at A-State, and her brother, 11-year-old Ford.

“I think it’s really cool to have a relationship with your dad not only as a dad but as your coach,” said Raffo of the A-State head baseball coach. “It’s helped in the pageant world because he’s really good at putting things in perspective. … He is really big on helping me get mentally and physically ready. When you’re physically ready, you’re mentally ready. It’s been a huge part of our relationship. He was on the road a lot when I was little, but Miss Arkansas has brought us closer. It’s a neat relationship to have.”

The 2019 Miss America Competition will air live on ABC on Sept. 9. To keep up with Miss Arkansas 2018, Claudia Raffo, follow her on Instagram at @missamericaar and @claudiaraffo or find her on Facebook.

Editor’s Note: The evening gown worn by Raffo during the Miss Arkansas Pageant and shown in the photos is a custom design by Tony Bowls from emerge in Conway. The red polka dot dress was provided by The Shabby Pig in Clarksville.