The new Miss America is a former tomboy who played college volleyball, a Rhodes Scholar finalist who began entering pageants to earn scholarship money for school, an aspiring doctor who plans to use her platform to fight childhood cancer and the only one among five finalists who knew that women won the right to vote in 1920.

Deidre Downs, 24, crowned Miss America Saturday night in Atlantic City, N.J., also is a member of a progressive Baptist church with a female pastor in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala.

“She’s just lovely. She’s very gracious and warm. She is not a cheerleader,” her pastor, Sarah Jackson Shelton, said of Downs. Downs joined Baptist Church of the Covenant, a downtown Birmingham congregation affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, about a year ago.

Shelton said she first came to know Downs, however, when Downs was in high school and attending another Birmingham congregation, Riverchase Baptist Church, where Shelton was associate pastor.

Downs left Alabama after earning a volleyball scholarship to University of Virginia, but lost her scholarship when she left the team to devote more time to her studies. She transferred to Samford University in Birmingham, graduating magna cum laude in 2002 with a history major.

Downs and Shelton reconnected after Martha Ann Cox, a board member of the Miss Alabama organization and longtime Samford employee, suggested the socially conscious young woman looking for a place to worship visit Baptist Church of the Covenant, where Shelton came as senior pastor in 2002.

Downs’ worship attendance has been irregular because of travel since winning the Miss Alabama pageant this summer. Shelton said Downs manages to attend about once every three or four weeks and belongs to the church’s college and career Sunday school class.

She has also spoken at the church on a Wednesday night about childhood cancer, a cause for which Downs’ deep involvement led to her also winning the Miss America “Quality of Life” award, which honors community service and carries a $6,000 scholarship.

Downs, who wants to be a pediatrician but delayed entering medical school a year to compete for the Miss America crown, plans to use her title as a platform to raise awareness about pediatric cancer.

“Children with cancer need a voice, and I want to be that voice as Miss America,” Downs said in a press release.

She’ll log about 20,000 miles a month, sharing her message with reporters, civic leaders and millions of fans. The tour started Monday, with live interviews on NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Live with Regis & Kelly.” Today it’s live appearances on the CBS “Early Show” and on ABC on the “Tony Danza Show.” She’ll also find time for the traditional reading of the Top Ten List on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” scheduled to air Friday night on CBS.

Downs became involved with the cause of childhood cancer when she visited Camp Smile-a-Mile, a Birmingham camp for children who have or have had cancer. The experience inspired her to volunteer at the Children’s Hospital of Alabama Cancer Unit. She found the work so rewarding that she started Making Miracles, a program allowing high school and college students to volunteer to work directly with childhood cancer patients.

Learning more about pediatric cancer, Downs turned attention to raising funds for research for treatment, detection and prevention. She organized a “Rock-a-Thon” in 2001 for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society.

In 2002 she got the idea to develop an Alabama “Curing Childhood Cancer” license tag with revenues going toward research and treatment. She submitted the paperwork to state authorities and waited almost a year for the go-ahead last summer to try to get the minimum 1,000 advance commitments for the tag. She was given from Aug. 1, 2003, to July 31, 2004, for the task. According to the State of Alabama, the official total before the deadline reached 2,059.

The plate costs $50. For each tag sold, $41.25 goes to the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, where 95 percent of children with cancer in Alabama are treated.

Cancer is the No. 1 disease killer of children. More than 11,000 young people are diagnosed each year, and about 2,300 children and teenagers die annually from cancer.

Thanks to research, however, the overall survival rate for all types of childhood cancer is up to 72 percent. Childhood leukemia, once certain death, is now 80 percent curable. More than 400,000 patient-years of life are being saved each year using newly discovered treatments for childhood cancer, according to an information Web site.

Downs also pledged to use her year to improve the image of Miss America amid criticism that it is outdated and irrelevant to modern women. “People don’t realize all the positive aspects of this program,” said Downs, who before this year finished as first runner up for Miss Alabama in 2003 and third runner up in 2001 and 2002. “People don’t see it as more than a pageant. It’s a scholarship program and it’s not afraid to be glamorous.”

According to the Miss America Web site, the organization is the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women, handing out $45 million in cash and scholarship assistance last year. Downs will receive $50,000 for winning the title, and could earn as much as $200,000 in appearance fees during the next year.

She also defended this year’s swimsuit competition, which for the first time featured skimpier two-piece suits sponsored by Speedo than the traditional one-piece swimwear of earlier years. “Swimwear should remain a part of the event because it demonstrates a healthy lifestyle at a time when obesity has become an epidemic,” Downs said.

At church, however, she’s regarded as far more than a pretty face. Her pastor says she is unassuming and approachable and doesn’t try to draw attention to herself or expect special treatment.

“She’s so incredibly bright,” Shelton said. “She’s got a wonderful mind. She’s dedicating herself to changing other people’s life. She has a very warm and tender heart.”

Between 50 and 75 members gathered at the church Saturday night to watch the pageant as a group. At first the mood was relaxed, but the crowd became more and more focused as Downs advanced from one round to the next.

“I think we all knew she was really good, but I think even she was surprised she won,” Shelton said. “We were all sitting on the edges of our seat—lots of cheering and lots of cell phones going.”

“It was a lot of fun.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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