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  • Writer's pictureTori Leto

Mental Health Champion Scholarship Submission

As I prepare to compete for the title of Miss Florida 2024 in the Miss America opportunity, I am thrilled to present my submission for the Mental Health Champion Scholarship. This scholarship required contestants to write a 500 word essay demonstrating their commitment to promoting mental health. Regardless of the scholarship's outcome, I am enthusiastic about highlighting my ongoing community efforts to support youth mental health. For those familiar with my journey and goals, here is a reiteration of my motivation and approach to addressing youth mental health.

Mental Health Champion Scholarship Submission:

I would not be who I am or where I am today without the countless individuals who went beyond expectations to invest in me. Their support nurtured my passion and purpose: to do the same for others. Every child deserves not just to survive but the opportunity to thrive. This belief drives my dedication to addressing the mental health crisis in our communities. I am a mental health champion in every facet of my life and work, striving to foster resilience and hope among youth.

My journey extends beyond my CSI statement of “Brighter Times: Resilience Education for Youth.” It is my career and calling as I pursue a Master’s in Social Work and, eventually, a PhD in Public Health Leadership. I have founded my own nonprofit and LLC, which I am actively scaling to broaden my impact. Originally, I aspired to become a clinical psychiatrist. However, through the Miss America opportunity, I discovered the profound value of my voice. My struggles have become my greatest strengths, and sharing my story allows me to change the narrative for countless others like myself.

Despite always grappling with the stigma surrounding mental health, my role in combating this stigma was solidified as a titleholder, fundamentally shifting my perspective. During my first title, I had the immense privilege of delivering a keynote speech for the Gracepoint Foundation at their "Stronger Than Stigma" event. On the day of the event, while at a networking gathering, I proudly shared my excitement to speak to an audience of over 500 people. However, significant figures in my life warned me of the repercussions of my vulnerability, citing the quote, “Confession is good for the soul but bad for the image.” Torn between my identity and reputation, I sobbed, feeling conflicted. But then I remembered why I had won the local title: my authenticity.

That night, I began my speech with, “Good evening everyone, I am Miss [Local Title], but I am only Miss [Local Title] because I am Tori Leto.” I then removed my crown and sash, placing them on the podium. I delivered my speech, and though terrified of the audience's reaction, I was met with a standing ovation. Countless parents, siblings, and young individuals approached me, expressing how my speech had inspired them. The very person who warned me against vulnerability hugged me with tears in their eyes, saying they were proud. Months later, I learned their fear stemmed from their own untold story, which they later shared while accepting an award. This event profoundly transformed my understanding of the power of my voice, teaching me that you never know who might be in desperate need of hearing your story.

I pursue the Miss America opportunity for many reasons, but above all, for the chance to make a difference. I prioritize authenticity, audaciousness, and relatability, inspiring others to do the same. By leading my life with these principles, I empower others to face stigma and fear with courage.

Brighter Times (501c3) and Brighter Times Resilience Collaborative (LLC) embody my lifelong dreams. The goals of these organizations align with my vision of leaving a lasting legacy. The nonprofit arm is currently partnering with the University of South Florida School of Social Work to develop a resilience curriculum for Hillsborough County public schools. This initiative was inspired by my partnership with the Hillsborough County Public Schools Mental Health Advisory Council, through which I have reached countless students, providing empowerment presentations and learning directly from them about their needs. Their feedback and eagerness to expand my activities inspired me to pursue this ambitious project.

My curriculum, which will be accessible via Canvas, includes additional resources to transform it into an in-person group activity. With comprehensive lesson plans, teachers can facilitate discussions and activities to deepen learning. This initiative aims to scale across other high schools and eventually extend to middle and elementary schools.

To further support students 1:1, I created the LLC. As I pursue my Master’s in Social Work and await certification as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, I have obtained certification as a life coach and a youth mental health first aider. With these qualifications, I mentor students as a success coach, helping them navigate high school challenges and prepare for college. Both of these endeavors highlight a preventative and proactive approach to the mental health crisis.

After completing my Master’s, I aspire to achieve a PhD in Public Health Leadership and pursue political roles such as a school board member, county commissioner, City Council Member, or even a State Legislator. With the well-rounded education I've gained through scholarships, I aim to reinvest in the community I serve.

My education and experiences have equipped me to make a meaningful impact, and as a mental health champion, I am committed to fostering resilience, hope, and equity for all.

With Gratitude,

Tori Leto

Miss City Beautiful 2024

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