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Crowning Achievement: Miss USA comes home to Vegas to help women in need (and eat lollipops)

Nia Sanchez was 6 years old, and her parents had made a painful choice to separate. Sanchez’s stay-at-home mom didn’t have much, so she took Sanchez and her brother to a women’s shelter.

Sometimes when you hear the word “shelter,” you think someone’s life has spiraled out of control. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A shelter can be but a beacon in the night for 6-year-olds and their moms.

Sanchez, born in Sacramento, Calif., recalls the steady shelter.

“They had child day care. So it was a place my brother and I could be watched by somebody safe,” Sanchez says.

Shelter workers helped her mom craft a résumé and find a job.

“We just needed a place to go and get on our own two feet,” Sanchez says.

A few years later, Sanchez’s mom moved to Washington state. Sanchez moved in with her father, a military man, in Menifee, an hour north of San Diego.

“I had a really good relationship with both of my parents,” Sanchez says. “Every three months, I got to visit my mom in Washington.”

Sanchez always remembered where she came from and gave back.

As a cheerleader in high school, Sanchez and other students organized a gown drive for kids in need.

Sanchez developed interesting tastes. Her dad insisted she get involved in an extracurricular activity, taekwondo. She hated it at first but then loved it and worked hard to earn a fourth-degree black belt.

Sanchez was unafraid to travel, even while carrying little. After high school, she flew to Germany to nanny far-flung cousins. While there, she invested her young life in absorbing the world. Europe, Asia, the Middle East.

She got a job as a princess greeter at Hong Kong Disneyland. One day, she was Cinderella, the next, Snow White, Belle or Aurora. She returned to America a world traveler with paycheck tiaras.

Her strength came in handy. At 21, she had to pry herself out of a “very unhealthy relationship,” which proved to be “difficult.”

“My car window was broken,” she says. “The last time I saw him was when he grabbed my arm tight enough to leave a bruise. I never saw him again.

“But after, I felt so much stronger and better for being out of that situation.”

One day, she was hanging with church friends. She met an actor, Daniel Booko, through mutual friends.

“I was a nobody and a nerd, pretty much,” Sanchez says with a laugh. “I was a nerd, and I didn’t really know how to dress.”

But none of that mattered to him. Now, several years have passed, and they’re in love.

“I have the best man in the entire world. He’s positive and supportive and encouraging. I couldn’t ask for anybody better,” she says.

“He loved me before all this glitz and glam.”

Ah yes, the glam. Sanchez entered pageants in California. She didn’t win. She moved to Henderson last year and gave pageants another shot. In January, she was named Miss Nevada. In June, her crowning achievement arrived. She became Miss USA.

Sanchez, Nevada’s first Miss USA, will host her official Vegas homecoming at Sugar Factory at Town Square, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 20. Half of sales will go to the Shade Tree, a local shelter for women, children and their pets.

Sanchez, 24, used to volunteer at the Shade Tree. She got to know people there who just needed a hand.

“There were girls who were younger than me who had the strength to leave a difficult situation or an unhealthy relationship,” she says. “There was one girl that was a little younger than me, but she had two children, and I taught her kid in the stranger-danger class. They were so much fun.”

On Sanchez’s Instagram the other day, she posted this inspirational quote for women: “Don’t give the power to build your self-confidence to other people.”

She hopes women and girls will go see her at Sugar Factory and join her for a lollipop.

“I love sugar. That’s my pageant girl downfall,” she says. “If it’s sweet or salty, I’m definitely the sweet girl.”

Doug Elfman’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Email him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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