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NEWS | Nov. 30, 2011

Team Charleston’s own wins Most Beautiful Eyes, $25,000 scholarship

By Senior Airman Anthony J. Hyatt 628th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

A picture can be worth a thousand words, but for one Team Charleston member it proved to be worth thousands of dollars and more.

Kayla Helferich, eight-year-old daughter of Master Sgt. Joe and Michelle Helferich, recently won the Prevent Blindness America "Most Beautiful Eyes" contest and was awarded a $25,000 scholarship.

The national contest took place earlier this year with the purpose of generating awareness of the importance of healthy eyes for children. Parents of children ages zero to 17 were encouraged to submit a photo of their child online in August.

Kayla, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome, is your typical eight-year-old-girl - full of energy, loves all things pink and Winnie the Pooh.

The Helferichs first heard about the contest when Michelle and other bloggers were asked to spread the word about the contest.

With approximately two hours left to submit a photo, the Helferichs decided to give it a shot and submitted a photo of Kayla.

"People are always coming up to us and saying 'she has gorgeous eyes'," said Helferich. "We know she has beautiful eyes. Let's submit a photo and see what happens. It never really occurred that we had a chance to win."

The contest gathered more than 2,000 submissions nationwide.

To advance, Kayla had to first win the state of South Carolina competition. The contestant with the most votes from each state moved forward to the next round. Voting took place throughout the month of September on the PBA's Facebook page.

In early November the finalists were announced. The 50 state winners were cut to three by celebrity judges Larry King, Derrek Lee and Walter Cunningham.

The Helferichs found out that Kayla was a finalist and were flown out to Chicago to attend the PBA Annual Awards Banquet Nov. 18 with the other two families.

When the announcers called the finalists up to the stage, Kayla wasted no time.

"She heard her name and she b-lined to the stage. Michelle and I hadn't even gotten out of our seats yet and Kayla was already up on stage," said Helferich. "She was as proud as she could be. She heard her name and she was like 'yup, that's me!'"

The announcers began with congratulating the second runner-up, four-year-old Hailey Verrill from Maine.

Next, they announced the first runner-up. Lyla Zaragoza, age two from Oklahoma.

"When they said the second place winner and it wasn't Kayla, Michelle and I kind of looked at each other thinking 'did they just really say that we just won?'" Helferich said.

The Helferichs were then presented a check for a $25,000 scholarship. The announcer also awarded Kayla a certificate and blue ribbon.

Kayla quickly dropped the big cardboard check and went right for the ribbon.

"I won a ribbon! I won a ribbon!" Kayla shouted.

She was happy the rest of the night and asked her father if she could sleep with her ribbon.

"It's been an amazing, unexpected trip, especially for Kayla. She doesn't understand it now, but hopefully she'll understand it later," said Helferich. "Having a child with a disability and falling into an opportunity like this is indescribable."

In addition to the scholarship, Kayla will become the face of the Star Pupils program for one year. Star Pupils is the signature children's eye health program from PBA.

Prevent Blindness America is the nation's leading volunteer eye health and safety organization dedicated to fighting blindness and saving sight.

(Information from the Prevent Blindness America website was used in this article.)