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Miss Old Dominion State

With sickle-cell platform, Chantilly High's Iris Walker competes in national pageant.

Chantilly High sophomore Iris Walker, 15, was crowned "Miss Old Dominion State," Sunday afternoon, and will now compete in a national pageant.

It's the Miss Teen African American Scholarship Pageant and Development Program, held July 7-22, in Charlotte, N.C. And Iris is one of four girls, selected from a field of 60, who will represent Virginia.

THE CONTEST allows her to champion her particular cause of fighting sickle-cell anemia until a cure is found. And whoever's chosen national queen will receive a $10,000 scholarship toward college.

"I was speechless and very excited when I learned that I'd been selected [to participate]," said Iris. "I wanted to apply for this because I thought it would help with college expenses, getting me one step closer toward becoming a lawyer. I also want to pursue a modeling career at the same time."

She's the daughter of Sheila and Lawrence Walker of Oak Hill. Mom Sheila is a retired major in the U.S. Army Reserves and also worked 23 years for the federal government as a systems accountant. And Dad Lawrence is especially well-known and respected in the local area.

He's Music Department chair at Franklin Middle School and has been the band director there since the school opened, 22 years ago. But this time, the spotlight is on younger daughter Iris. Older daughter Lauren, 22, attends Belmont University in Nashville.

"I am very proud of Iris because we're tough on both our girls," said Lawrence Walker. "We made sure they always understood that hard work and discipline are not based on a feeling; they're based on a commitment. And we've constantly shared with them that the success my wife and I have had in our careers has been due to our focus."

The Miss Teen African American Scholarship Pageant and Development Program was founded by Rachel Oliver-Cobbin, Miss Black America 1986, and her husband, Keith Cobbin, a financial and estate planner. Oliver-Cobbin has long had a passion to motivate and teach young women to be the best they can be.

Dedicated to inspiring them to aim high and pursue their dreams, she and Cobbin created this program to imbue young black women with a better-defined sense of self and purpose that would empower them to set high goals for themselves and know they're capable of reaching them.

THE PROGRAM gives them technical and practical skills to enrich and enhance their lives and encourage them to have purpose and value in all they do. The motto is producing "Queens beyond their teens" who will someday make a real difference in the world.

"Oprah Winfrey, Halle Berry and Vanessa Williams have also gone through this program," said Sheila Walker. Also proud of her daughter, Sheila said Iris was selected as a contestant because of two essays she wrote.

One told why she believes she deserves to represent Virginia. The other said that, if she's chosen as the national queen, she'd champion the social issue of sickle-cell anemia.

Last Sunday, April 23, Iris read both essays at her Reston church, Heritage Fellowship United Church of Christ, where she was crowned "Miss Old Dominion State." She also read excerpts from the play, "Ain't I a Woman?" by 18th century Civil Rights leader Sojourner Truth, adding her own words to it.

And besides this latest honor, Iris was also recently selected as a delegate for the Fairfax NAACP Youth Council. The organization's executive director, Deloris Evans, appointed her, and Iris attended her first, Mid-Atlantic Regional session, April 8, at the Hyatt Fair Lakes.

She's also been accepted into George Washington University's Summer Scholars program, a 10-day course on "Law and Evidence Inside Criminal Law." Iris hopes to pursue a degree in criminal law because "I want to defend teen-agers accused of crimes and prosecute sexual predators."

Conquering sickle-cell anemia is also important to Iris because two of her first cousins died from it. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, approximately 3,500 people die from this disease every year. Iris also has a reason closer to home.

"I have it, and I wanted to help others who struggle with it," she explained. "I'd raise money toward a cure and help those in the hospital [because of sickle cell] get better care. As I've grown older, mine has gotten better. I haven't had a crisis in three years."

Her dad said Iris doesn't have the worst form of it, but those who do are hospitalized monthly and have shorter life spans. "Once patients dehydrate, their blood cells turn into irregular, sickle shapes, and excruciating pain comes when these cells get clogged in joints," he explained.

ALL DOCTORS can do for it, said Lawrence Walker, is administer fluids. "Sickle cell doesn't leave the body until it's ready to go," he said. "When Iris was younger, she'd be in crisis for three weeks at a time, in constant pain."

Walker said many blacks, American Indians and some dark-skinned Italians have it. "And because of interracial marriages, it's now starting to come into different races, including Caucasian," he said. "Many people have the trait for it and don't know it."

In her essay, Iris said she deserves to represent Virginia because she believes the qualities in her own life illustrate those found in the state seal. "I represent virtue and the teen who does what's right and avoids doing what's wrong," she said. "The state seal has a Roman goddess standing over a defeated opponent, representing heroism, righteousness, freedom and valor, and I parallel these qualities, too."

In her spare time, she enjoys reading mysteries, shopping and relaxing with family and friends. She's also active in her church's teen youth group.