Meredith Winnefeld had an important message for the students gathered in the gym at Highline Elementary School on May 1.
It was a theme that came up again and again, as Winnefeld went over her own biography and her long list of accomplishments since graduating from high school in Highlands Ranch. Even as she spoke about her studies at Arizona State University, her impressive career as an elite baton twirler that included performances at Super Bowl 49 and, of course, her crowning in 2017 as Miss Colorado, Winnefeld kept coming back to a fundamental message.
"Respect is so important," Winnefeld told the packed auditorium of Highline students. "Everyone is made in a unique and special way … It's important to help out and be respectful."
Winnefeld's message aligned neatly with the school-wide campaign that was closing out the 2017-18 school year at Highline, a push by students and teachers alike to make the school an environment where tolerance, respect and empathy rule. The Highline community was out to make sure that offensive language and behavior has no place in the hallways; that push included a conscientious campaign to do away with the "R" word.
Winnefeld offered another insight from her own biography to give that message its full weight. She told the assembled students about her own discovery, at the age of 8 years old, that she was blind in her right eye. Winnefeld spoke about how she refused to let that discovery get in the way of her ambitions; she used the anecdote as a springboard for getting out a message of universal respect and determination.
"This is what my year as Miss Colorado is all about – I'm out here to help," Winnefeld said. "Elementary school is a time when kids grow so much, and I want to inspire them."
She paired her words with an impressive baton twirling routine, one that had students and teachers alike hooting and hollering with enthusiasm.
"Baton twirling has always been my favorite sport," she said. "Now, it's a way to capture my audience."
Winnefeld's energetic twirling routine, as well as her words rooted in kindness, had an immediate impact on Ana Ocampo, a 10-year-old Highline fifth-grader. Mussie and her fellow members on the Highline's student government council had the chance to speak to Winnefeld after the school-wide assembly and glean lessons about perseverance and kindness.
"Winnefeld showed us that we can't judge people based on their appearance or anything else," Ocampo said. "She worked really hard to meet her goals, and she's a role model for all of us. I want to be a veterinarian, and I'm going to take her story as a lead."