In the span of an hour, 16-year-old Haley pops up from the deep, plush chair twice to give Amelia Old a hug, quite unexpectedly.
She tells Old she loves her. She calls Old a blessing. And then she plops back down beside her mom, Jene.
Haley is one of the main reasons Old finds herself in this situation: Revealing her story the whole thing, holding nothing back to strangers.
Because if she lays it all out in preparation for the Mrs. South Carolina America pageant on Nov. 9 in Lexington, S.C., she can also share the story of kids like Haley and The Sandbox, a charity that supports children with cancer and other serious diseases. And the story of All We Want Is Love, which fights human trafficking. And Transcend.e.d, a new eating disorder treatment program in Charlotte.
By competing for the Mrs. South Carolina America title, Old says she will give those organizations more of a voice.
The reason Im doing it is to bring attention to my causes, she says. They (family and friends) know Im not a pageant girl.
So, go ahead, call Amelia Old a beauty queen. Shes gorgeous, and she is Mrs. Ballantyne. (Shes also a social media expert, writing the blog Pretty in the Queen City and serving as president of Social Media Charlotte.)
But, above all that, shes a volunteer.
Amelia Old says her story isnt easy. She has struggled with eating disorders since she was 12, when she tried to control an unstable family life through food.
Her best friend from childhood was murdered when she was in high school. Her first sexual experience was date rape while in high school. She fell in love at 19, and found herself pregnant. Three months later, she miscarried. Her brother died in a car accident when she was 23. Her stepfather succumbed to pancreatic cancer last year.
She takes a deep breath. And she stays positive for her husband, Tim, and her kids, ages 14, 12 and 3, who have joined her in her work with The Sandbox.
Now, its a family thing. We all do it together, she says. (Tim co-chaired and planned The Sandboxs first charity golf tournament a few weeks ago.)
People want to see how our children get involved, Amelia said. We want them to see that, though youve been through X, Y and Z, there might be people out there who are hurting just a little more than you.
Thats why she does it, too.
Amelia met Tim about two years ago. They were a match made online, when her friends pushed her to start dating after the end of a long-term relationship in 2011.
She didnt think she was ready, but they got married in April and have been working on blending their families. Their older children are from Tims previous marriage; their youngest is from Amelias previous relationship.
Its really Brady Bunch, she says. Its not about blood. Its about whos in your life and who you love.
Her stepfather taught her that lesson, she says that you can love any child just like shes your own.
The whole charity thing is new to Tim hed never volunteered before he met Amelia.
I guess she showed me the light, or she pushed me over the edge, he says with a laugh. It becomes an addiction. You want to keep doing more.
So many good things have happened, he says. I dont know how we could have crammed so much good stuff in so little time.
Their relationship and her new family have been a life preserver for Amelia. Her separation had left her with a failure that she tried to control in an old, ugly way. Her anorexia re-emerged.
It started when she was 12. She dropped from 110 pounds to 80.
With her separation, she dropped to 112. Then came the responsibility of a new family.
When Tim and I knew we were going to be together, we decided I would be the home coordinator, Old said. It was difficult, but I had other things to focus on. My eyes were open and I had a lot relying on me.
Charlotte psychologist Amy Combs says people can struggle with anorexia off and on throughout their entire life.
It is likely to re-emerge during times of stress and transition, she says. Even positive stress and transitions can sometimes be triggers.
Just the same, positive life changes can be healing, says Combs, who practices in the Charlotte Center for Balanced Living in Southend.
The realization that anorexia is going to keep someone from achieving something very important to them often motivates recovery, she says. Overcoming the disease requires a great deal of determination and resolve. Unless someone has struggled with or had experience with this disease, the amount of courage required may be underestimated.
Besides the possibility of relapse, anorexia has left Old with lingering health and emotional effects. She had a mini-stroke when she was 20, a consequence of anorexia and the strain it puts on the heart. She can sense when her blood pressure is high or low even now, nearly 20 years later, though she maintains a healthy weight. She can have a personal trainer to advise her about working out, but she cant buy a gym membership because she could go overboard with exercise.
Those reminders of her struggle are why, though shell share her story as a cautionary tale, she wont ever describe how she starved herself and, in effect, give others a handbook to the disease. Those reminders are why she freaks out at any sign of an unhealthy conversation about diet and exercise in her house.
There have been some very difficult times when I have heard both of the older kids say, Im fat, she says. Im very observant when it comes to food and exercise.
And, of course, its why she applied to be Mrs. Ballantyne America so she could help others avoid the disease.
Old is no stranger to the limelight. She moved to Charlotte from Atlanta in 2007, bringing her international talent agency, Allure Image Management, with her. She won an American Business Award in 2008. But she closed the agency in 2010, after her daughter was born.
International travel and red carpets couldnt compare to the emotional connections of family and charity work.
Like the texts Amelia gets from Haley every day.
They met a little more than a year ago through The Sandbox, where Amelia has volunteered since 2011. Their bond was steadfast and instantaneous, Jene says.
Jene says the connection is unusual for Haley, who spent the first six months of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit, persevering through seven major strokes, hundreds of mini-strokes and 38 brain surgeries. She wasnt expected to live, let alone walk, talk or smile. She does all three, with vigor. But Haley has serious developmental delays and is autistic, Jene says, so making connections isnt easy.
Amelia talks to Haley about fashion, takes her on shopping sprees, teases her about boyfriends and the annual prom sponsored by The Sandbox.
Haley says Amelia is one of the best things that has ever happened to her.
Amelia puts it back on Haley. I think anybody who meets Haley, she says, gets connected and cant let her go.
Mara Campolungo, co-founder of The Sandbox, says Amelia is more than a volunteer; shes an ambassador. She really is the epitome of bringing gifts and talents to The Sandbox, because shes brought a myriad of them, Campolungo says.
Not all of Olds support is tangible its not all social media and event planning. She connects with the families The Sandbox helps.
I think that our families need to know that theres a loving community of people that care about them and that are walking alongside them and that believe in them, Campolungo says. The most important thing that our families need to know when theyre walking on this journey is that theyre believed in.
And maybe, through the Mrs. South Carolina America pageant, Old will inspire others to volunteer so they can meet great kids like Haley. I think theres so much hands-on work to do in this city, she says. I think people should be involved in general.
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