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“We work hard to stay silly,” Carter said. “You’ve got to keep it light. … You can’t let these kids feel like this is their whole world.”

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When Elizabeth Smith was a little girl, no dream was ever too big or unrealistic.

Her valiant attitude traces to her mother Dana Carter, who encouraged Elizabeth to discover and pursue dreams. Admiration and fondness filled the 20-year-old’s voice as she talked about her mom.

“She encouraged us to have really unrealistic dreams, which I am so fortunate for. I am a broadcast journalism major at the University of Oklahoma, but I want to be an entertainer, correspondent, actress and a singer. As crazy as it sounds, I believe I can do it wholeheartedly,” Elizabeth said.

She giggled before continuing with her younger sisters’ aspirations.

“Paula wants to be a fashion designer for the red carpet. Hellen wants to be an actress. Evelyn wants to be a doctor and a ballet dancer,” she said. “We all have cuckoo dreams, but I like to tell people it’s because of our mother encouraging us and pushing us that we are the way we are.”

Many parents tell their children to dream big, but Carter also motivated her daughters to take the steps needed to accomplish their aspirations, said 19-year-old Paula Smith, Carter’s second-oldest daughter.

“She is one of the biggest cheerleaders you will ever meet,” said Paula, a student at Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus. “If you are in my mother’s life, she is going to support you no matter what. She does that with my sisters and me. I’ve seen her do it with her friends and the people she is close to. I think that is what anyone would say about my mother.”

Evelyn Smith, a 15-year-old student at Classen School of Advanced Studies and Carter’s youngest daughter, described her mom as well-spoken and outspoken.

“She is our mom and our dad,” Evelyn said. “With my siblings and my mom, I never have to explain. They will always be there for me.”

Known in Oklahoma pageant circles as the “Smith sisters,” the four young women are noted for their titles as well as their grace, eloquence and talent in the fine arts. In June, Elizabeth, as Miss Frontier Country, competes in the Miss Oklahoma Scholarship Pageant. Her younger sister Paula, as Miss Troup County in Georgia, competes in the Miss Georgia Scholarship Pageant. If both sisters win the coveted titles, they will contend for the Miss America crown in Atlantic City come September. Hellen Smith, also a student at Classen SAS, is Miss Oklahoma Teen USA and Evelyn is Miss Tulsa State Fair Outstanding Teen.

Long before they were title-holders competing in statewide pageants, they were four little girls who depended on their mother.

Single parenthood

About 12 years ago, newly divorced Carter was worried. She questioned the decision she made and how it would affect her daughters. Would a single parent still be able to give her children everything they needed? Would her girls become part of the negative statistics of growing up in a fatherless home?

Carter pushed away thoughts about high school dropouts, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse. Instead, she focused on raising happy and confident young women who excelled at school and were active in extracurricular activities. She imagined her children raised in a family environment where each member was caring and supportive of the other.

With determination, prayer and sacrifice, Carter embraced single parenthood. The affirmations that Carter repeated to her children matched her unspoken parenting oath.

“We don’t say what we can’t do; we do,” Carter responded when she heard a daughter say, “I can’t.”

Carter stayed positive when faced with the stresses of single parenthood and the financial obstacles of raising four daughters on a salary she earns while working in the nonprofit sector. She also relied on her parents and siblings for help.

“Iron sharpens iron,” Carter often told her girls.

The three-word phrase was more than an expression or Bible scripture; it was the family’s mantra as they relied on one another and pushed each other to greatness on a daily basis.

“I wanted excellence for them,” Carter said. “I wanted to raise them outside of the box.”

Family traits

When the Smith girls were in grade school, they spent summers with their grandparents. Old portraits and snapshots hung on the walls of Carter’s parents’ home. A few were of Carter in her crown and sash from her time as Miss South Oklahoma City in 1994. That year, she also finished as third runner-up in the Miss Oklahoma Pageant.

“I think what got us into watching the videos was the photos on the wall,” Paula said. “They were pageant headshots and from her competing in Miss Oklahoma. We were curious, and we pulled out the videos.”

Elizabeth recalls her grandfather proudly showing her and her sisters the videos from the 1994 Miss Oklahoma pageant.

“She was so, so incredibly talented gliding across the stage,” Elizabeth said. “In pageants, women spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on evening gowns. She was in this beautiful white evening gown that my grandmother made. It maybe cost $100, but it was incredible.”

Years later, a teacher at Classen SAS suggested Elizabeth consider competing in pageants. Thinking about her mother in those old VHS tapes, Elizabeth was interested, but Carter wasn’t. The reality television show Toddlers & Tiaras painted a disturbing picture of today’s pageant culture. Children seemed stressed, scarred and pressured by parents, which Carter explained was unlike her experience. After some time and following a discussion between Carter and her pageant director from the 1990s, Carter encouraged her eldest daughter to compete.

It didn’t take long for all the sisters to “get the pageant bug,” Paula said. One year after the first sister competed, Elizabeth earned a Miss Oklahoma City 2014 title and Paula won Miss Bricktown’s Outstanding Teen 2014.

“They were naturals,” Carter said. “They worked hard to be themselves and made their mark.”

As the sisters practiced for competitions, Carter insisted they do it their way. They didn’t hire a consultant or a personal trainer. Instead, Carter opted for vocal teachers and dance classes, and the girls created their own workout schedules before school. When it came to hair and makeup, YouTube videos taught them how to create hair extensions and apply mascara. Homework and chores also remained a priority.

During pageants, the family support system remains intact. Carter high-fives her daughters as they walk off the stage. She keeps spirits high and the pressure low as they compete.

“We work hard to stay silly,” Carter said. “You’ve got to keep it light. … You can’t let these kids feel like this is their whole world.”

No matter what happens at a pageant, Carter knows they learn from the experience and come away with increased confidence and higher self-esteem.

“I understand what a pageant does for a young woman,” Carter said. “Among interviews, exercise, dance or voice, they are developing themselves.”

For the sisters, their mother is their inspiration.

“Watching those videos, I saw how much potential my mother had,” Elizabeth said. “It is a huge motivator for me to do more and do better. If this is what my mother could do at my age, I can do even more because I’ve been raised by her and taught by her.”

Strong bond

Pageants don’t define Carter and her close-knit daughters. They are just what the family does together, like how some families support children in sports or band, Carter said.

The moments the sisters most cherish have little to do with crowns or sashes, but with time spent together, like mother and daughters singing along to Prince or Lauryn Hill songs on the car radio. Even past family meetings are fond memories for the young women.

“Every time my mother called a family meeting, I would be angry because we had to stop what we were doing,” Paula said. “As soon as we sat down, we would talk about life, our dreams, our goals and God. They were some of the most special moments. I think we were very often the closest and most connected when we sat down for the family meetings.”

Carter beams with pride as she talks about her four exceptional daughters.

“I’ve learned from them,” Carter said. “I believe the biggest investment you can make is in your children. That’s where I choose to invest.”

Print Headline: Mother’s love, Four young women credit their mom as the key to their success.

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