03/18/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
As a lifelong sufferer from sickle-cell anemia, Madelyn Terrero is frail for her 15 years. Her biweekly blood transfusions at Jackson's Children's Hospital in Miami drain her of energy and self-esteem. But things change when former Miss Teen All American Jenna Edwards turns up for a visit to Madelyn's hospital. Careful not to disturb the intravenous needle in the girl's left hand, Edwards applies polish to Madelyn's nails and blusher to her cheeks. Then Edwards, proclaiming Madelyn "Queen for a Day," presents her with a pink rose and crowns her with a rhinestone-studded tiara. "With this," says Madelyn's mother, Lucia, looking on, "she has turned into someone else. She has turned into a happy person." "It was fun," adds Madelyn. "I got to do what other girls like to do."
It's just practical magic to Edwards, 20, who dispenses it regularly as part of her Queen for a Day program, which gives the royal treatment (including feather boas and tea parties) to seriously ill girls, from toddlers to teens, in hospitals and cancer centers across the country. The crowning touch—the tiaras—are donated by beauty queens past and present. "Having one on your head just does something to the way you look at yourself," says Edwards, a communications major at the University of Miami who has crowned nearly 100 girls. "When they're feeling bad, they can put this on and take their minds off their illness."
Which makes for good medicine. Boosting the patients' spirits "will have a positive effect," says Dr. Doured Daghistani, a pediatric oncologist at Baptist Children's Hospital in Miami, where Edwards made a recent visit to a dozen girls. "When you're happy, you tolerate the treatment better."
In fact Edwards's healing work has been so successful that QFAD chapters have started up in California, Pennsylvania and Illinois. "We love what we are doing," says Diane Wozniak, 45, the current Mrs. Illinois All American, who founded the Illinois branch after hearing about QFAD through a pageant Internet site. "One girl I met was 16 and had cancer, and she said, 'I will take this with me to the end,'" recalls Wozniak. "I had to walk out of the room because it was so emotional."
Born in Brandon, Miss., to Tom, 52, an operations manager for a Cadillac dealership, and homemaker Debbie, 51, Edwards (who also has two half brothers, Thomas, 27, and Johnny Wilson, 32) hit the pageant circuit at the age of 7. She earned more than 100 titles before winning Miss Teen All American, her biggest, in August 1999. A year later, while making an appearance at a local telethon for the Children's Miracle Network, Edwards met an 8-year-old girl, Randa Martin, who had lost her hair from chemotherapy. Touched by the girl's bravery, Edwards went home and brought back one of her tiaras. "Jenna said, 'She has to have something that makes her know she's defeated her disease,'" recalls Tom. "She was ready to give up some of her most prized possessions."
Randa was thrilled by the gesture, and Edwards soon began visiting area hospitals, handing out the crowns she'd won over the years. "At first I was afraid to talk to the girls because I was thinking, Who am I to come in here and act like this girl's best friend?" says Edwards. "I realized I had to get over that."
Within days of hosting her first party, Edwards realized she needed more tiaras. She put requests on the Internet and in pageant bulletins, and soon crowns began arriving in the mail. "You go through a lot of competitions, so you acquire a lot of crowns and tiaras," says Shelly Muñoz, a former Ms. Petite U.S. Achievement and director of a QFAD chapter in California. "They're easier to part with because they bring so much happiness to the girls who receive them."
Now Edwards—who aspires to become Miss America someday—is hoping more beauty queens will pitch in. "I believe that when God gives you a desire, He will also give you a way," says Edwards. "I've just gone with the flow."
Gary McKechnie in Miami