Crowning Glory

updated 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ON A SLOW NIGHT AT THE TASTEE-FREEZ IN BENNINGTON, VT., last month, 16-year-old Charlotte Lopez practiced her beauty queen walk, striding down the aisle and posing while her sister and fellow employee, Diana, laughed and egged her on. "All of her life she's always watched pageants," says Diana, 15. "She told me when she was little, 'I'm going to win one of those.' "

On Aug. 10, Charlotte did just that when she was named Miss Teen USA in Biloxi, Miss., winning a two-year college scholarship, a Pontiac Sunbird convertible and $150,000 in cash and prizes. But as important for Charlotte, the Miss Teen crown also gives her the opportunity to raise awareness about a subject close to her heart: foster care. "Some people feel foster children are delinquents and have nothing going for them," says Charlotte, who has spent the last 13 years in foster homes. "My sister and brother and I couldn't help our situation. We were put in foster care because our mother wasn't able to take care of us, not because we were terrible kids."

A native of Puerto Rico, Charlotte moved to Vermont in 1977 with her mother, Emma, who was pregnant with Diana, and her older brother, Duane. (They each have separate fathers, and Charlotte has never met hers.) But the family's hopes for a better life were soon derailed by Emma's personal problems. "I remember silting on her lap and eating macaroni and cheese out of a Wendy's cup," says Charlotte. "Food wasn't around much, so when it was that was a big memory."

When Charlotte was 3, social services workers placed the children in foster homes. It was the last time they saw their mother, although Emma occasionally sends letters and photos through the caseworkers. "She loves us, and I love her," says Charlotte, who knows only that Emma now lives somewhere in Vermont. "I don't hold any grudges. I know it wasn't her fault."

In the foster-care system, Charlotte and Diana were separated from Duane and moved together from family to family. "We were lost in the system," says Charlotte, who has spent time in six different foster homes. "It's a really rare situation that my sister and I weren't adopted. After a while, I came to terms and said, 'Charlotte, you've just got to love yourself and cherish the life you have.' "

That strategy seems to have worked. Besides her crown, Charlotte has also won the hearts of Jill Charles, 45, the artistic director of the Dorset (Vt.) Theater Festival, and her husband, Al Scheps, 53, owner of an Italian deli. Charles and Scheps, who live in Dorset and have a 15-year-old foster son, Jay, met Charlotte last spring and are now in the process of adopting her. Diana is also being adopted by the foster family with whom she has lived for 14 years. (Charlotte lived there for 11 years, then three years ago moved into a different foster home because, she says, "my needs had changed.") And last December the girls tracked down Duane, now 24 and a musician living in Boulder, Colo., whom they hadn't seen in 13 years. "Their reuniting was the best thing that happened," says Janet Henry, the foster mom with whom Charlotte lived from 1990 until she moved in with her new parents in July. "It was the first time I saw Charlotte cry."

Urged on by Henry, who nicknamed her Cinderella, Charlotte entered and won the Miss Teen Vermont pageant last November, which brought her to the Biloxi contest. Now, in the wake of her victory, Charlotte plans lo write a book about her foster-care experiences and is talking with producers about starring in a TV-movie version of her life. In the meantime, she's looking forward to her senior year at Burr and Burton Seminary, a public school in Manchester, spending time with boyfriend Dan Sleeman, 21, a senior at Lyndon Stale College, and, she hopes, finding out a little more about the woman who gave birth to her. "My whole life is still a mystery," says Charlotte. "I'm just piecing it together little by little."

TOBY KAHN in New York City

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