Dee Summers remembers her daughter’s first dance recital at age 3, when she was so shy didn’t even want to walk onto the stage.

Today you could say 23-year-old Sarah Rose Summers has gotten comfortable in front of a crowd.

Representing Nebraska, the Papillion native was crowned Miss USA on Monday night in front of a national TV audience after competing in pageants for more than a decade.

“It’s just pure excitement, elation and disbelief,” her mom said.

Her mother, dad, Mike, and two dozen other friends and family from Nebraska and elsewhere were in the audience when she was crowned during the competition in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Friends and family say the Papillion-La Vista South High graduate is a determined and self-assured woman.

They also say she is a person with a big heart and a caring personality who has been finding ways to help others since she was a kid. Summers was traveling Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

She now goes on to represent the United States in the Miss Universe competition.

Summers, who graduated cum laude from Texas Christian University with bachelor’s degrees in strategic communications and child development, entered her first pageant at age 10, the National American Miss. But it would take four years before she won, earning the title of 2009 Nebraska National American Miss Junior Teen. Later that year, she won that pageant’s national competition.

Her success in pageants continued, and earlier this year she was crowned Miss Nebraska USA, which gave her the opportunity to represent the state in Monday’s competition.

Her mother said her success in pageants over the years came through hard work. She would spend hours researching issues in the news so she would be ready for questions that could pop up during the interview portion of pageants.

During the Q&A segment of Monday’s competition, she was asked: “One in four children in the United States lives in a single-parent household. How has that affected our generation’s views on marriage and family?”

She answered: “I am so grateful to have grown up in a home with two parents. Hi, parents, out there. And so I can’t personally relate to this. However, I do work in children’s hospitals as a certified child life specialist where I’m a liaison between the children and families and the medical team. And I’ve seen single mothers at the bedside working remotely on their computers to stay by their children and support them, and I think that it just shows that children, no matter if it’s a boy or a girl, that they can do that.”

During other pageants over the years, community involvement was often considered by judges, and those who know Summers say her work came naturally.

As a teen she became active in raising funds for the American Cancer Society, because she lost a grandmother to breast cancer. She also became involved in a group that gives gifts of homemade blankets to seriously ill children. She also started her own community project that involved her collecting jeans and donating them to children and teens at shelters.

“She’s a beautiful person inside and out,” said Kati Settles, a former assistant principal at Papillion-La Vista South.

Settles said Summers helped organize the student cheer section at basketball and football games and made sure special needs students were included in the group. She also was among students who volunteered to baby-sit children of the school’s faculty and administrators so they could participate in parent-teacher conferences and open houses.

Settles remembers that when her daughter turned 8 in 2012, Summers stopped by the party and let the girls try on her pageant crown and talked with the children about the importance of confidence and kindness.

“It just helped them feel special,” she said.

Settles said children gravitate toward Summers, and she thinks the new Miss USA has found a perfect career: She recently completed her clinical rotations to become a certified child life specialist, serving as a liaison between children and families and the medical team.

Julia Burgess, a close friend since high school, said Summers has an honest, genuine and playful way about her that draws people.

Burgess said she’s the type of friend who will tell you if you have a piece of broccoli in your teeth or if the outfit you’re picking out at the store maybe isn’t quite right .

Though she looks stunning in an evening gown and enjoys getting dressed up, Burgess said, her friend is more comfortable in jeans, eating pizza with family and friends.

She displayed her fun personality during Monday’s competition, she said, when Summers gave a playful high-five to a man on the stage.

“I was like, of course, Sarah would do that,” Burgess said. “She doesn’t take herself too seriously.”

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