As Sophia Takla prepared for the Miss America competition, she consulted with many people and had discussions and plans about how to best represent herself as Miss Oregon on the national stage.
For lunch one day, she met the only woman to win Miss America from Oregon, Katie Harman in 2002, who shared the importance of knowing the reason behind the quest for the title.
"You need to have a strong understanding of your 'Why,'" Takla said. "Why you want to be Miss America. All of the work you do and passion and time you give is associated with your why."
Oh, and Takla, who leaves for the Miss America festivities and contest in Connecticut this week, has plenty of answers for the judges during preliminary competition and then potentially the finals Thursday, Dec. 15. She runs her own nonprofit, Operation Joy, which arranges for music to help comfort sick children. She has been working for Sparrow Clubs USA, which aligns schools with children in medical crisis and their families to raise funds and empowers students toward empathy. She has worked extensively through the years for American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, currently as a legislative ambassador, testifying both locally and nationally recently on why flavored tobacco must be banned.
Why Takla, 22, wants to be Miss America is because of all the good things the platform would allow her to do, above and beyond the prestige and exposure for somebody who aspires to sing and act on Broadway and possibly in movies. Friends and family remember her singing as a toddler from the backseat of a car and dancing in the middle of a living room, and Takla became an avid child musical actor in Portland.
"It opens up the ability to reach far and wide and have a bigger impact," she said, of being in Miss America.
"My why is about spreading Operation Joy nationally and reaching kids in children's hospitals."
The Portland native and 2019 Jesuit High School graduate has been finishing her bachelor of fine arts degree from Boston Conservatory at Berklee College of Music online while preparing for Miss America — she'll finish this month and walk in graduation ceremony in May 2023. She has been busy making appearances around the state as Miss Oregon, and polishing up her presentation for Miss America, which includes rehearsing for the talent competition — she'll once again sing "Don't Rain On My Parade," Barbra Streisand-style from "Funny Girl." A whip-smart young woman, Takla also has been learning how to handle herself for the onstage question-answer and conversation/interview with a former Miss America.
But, mostly, it's been about continuing her community service work, and not only because the Miss America competition, also known as a scholarship program (not a pageant), emphasizes the Social Impact Initiative element for contestants.
Takla has many community service accomplishments on her resume, and she is proud of them all.
With Operation Joy, she'll bring iPODs into hospitals for kids, or sing "Let It Go" with them — anything involving sharing the joy of music with kids, hoping to help make them happy. She started the nonprofit to give back in honor of her cousin, who died when Takla was 9 years old from brain cancer.
"Before I knew what Social Impact Initiative was, I created Operation Joy and have run it for 14 years — countless hours," she said.
She raised $11,000 for the Cancer Action Network organization during the COVID-19 pandemic. She does many things to raise money, including baking cookies and delivering them.
"It's so addictive to give back. Nothing like it. Fills you up as much as anything else," Takla said.
"You can make a financial impact without a dime in your pocket. The best moments are when I get to go to hospital and be with kids." She once said, "Service for me is a lifestyle."
Laura Queen, Portland director of Sparrow Clubs USA, had watched Takla flourish as a volunteer and hired her as an assistant this year. Takla was going to be in Portland because of her Miss Oregon duties, and Queen knew she would be an excellent assistant to help arrange the student involvements and business sponsorships with 20 Oregon schools.
"Sophia is nothing short of a Godsend for this," Queen said.
"She's literally filled with joy. That is simply who she is. She walks into a room and people gravitate to her, she lights up a room, knows what to do. Sophia exudes generousness and a heart of gold."
Queen has worked with many young people through Sparrow Clubs and as a longtime teacher.
"Sophia is different. She is as genuine as genuine comes. I taught seventh grade for 30 years, I'm a hard sell, so to speak," Queen added. "When Sophia volunteers, she volunteers with her whole heart.
"You don't work in the nonprofit world for money. You have to have a heart for it, and it has to be part of your soul. Sophia knew about Sparrow Clubs when she was 9, because she lost her cousin to (brain cancer), and her cousin was a Sparrow. Sparrow Clubs always has been something Sophia has been a part of."
Said Takla: "It's a very holistic program that helps kids, and engages local businesses and students."
As far as Miss America competition, "I just feel so honored, I'm so excited to represent the state," Takla said. "I count my lucky stars that I get the opportunity in the first place, and I'm not going to waste it."
Miss America bound
She leaves for the East Coast on Wednesday, Dec. 7 for some press responsibilities in New York City, and then it's off to the Mohegan Sun resort in Uncasville, Connecticut, site of Miss America pageant. There'll be two days of preliminary competitions, and then the finals Thursday, Dec. 15 (livestreamed on Peacock).
The Miss America competition doesn't have a swimsuit competition anymore; the only fashion impression aspect would be appearance during a red carpet and on-stage activities, which mimics a job interview — Takla designed and helped make her gown two years ago.
It's been a whirlwind since being named Miss Oregon in June. She competed as Miss Meadowlark, an open-affiliated status after representing as Miss Portland-Metro the year before.
"Going into it, it's really a combination of getting ready for Miss America, and being the best possible Miss Oregon I can be," she said. "You want to finish your year as Miss Oregon and feel like you didn't waste a minute."
Takla made about 70 appearances around the state, including serving as a volunteer helping Gold Star families, emceeing events including the Chelsea Hicks Foundation Gala and visiting kids in hospitals — just about anything that could be asked of Miss Oregon.
Recently, she lobbied in Washington, D.C., on banning flavored tobacco, on behalf of the Cancer Action Network, and testified before the Multnomah County board on the same topic.
"One of my favorite experiences was meeting a little boy named Eli and his family. He had leukemia, and he was a child speaker at the Hicks Foundation Gala, that's where I met him. He had a chemo port in his chest that people said reminded him of Iron Man's heart. The Chelsea Hicks Foundation gave him an Iron Man costume, and we got OMSI to sponsor the entire family (as they currently feature a Marvel characters exhibit). I got a Captain Marvel costume and took the family to the exhibit."
Such acts and dedication to community service will help endear Takla to the Miss America folks, said Tamara Wissbaum, Takla's Miss Oregon consultant and family friend (she and Takla's mother, Kimberly, have known each other since high school). Wissbaum calls Takla "my sparkle daughter."
Said Wissbaum: "Her kindness is infectious, because she's so genuinely kind and gracious, an uplifting person. She's always been bubbly, animated and gregarious. She's always been about acting, Broadway. Now she's implemented everything. To be on the Miss America stage, to have the opportunity to showcase her talent, Social Impact Initiative and community work … you don't necessarily have to win Miss America, you still get a lot of exposure.
"No matter how she does, she's doing Oregon proud and she's going to give it her all and be gracious and happy with however she does. She'll put her heart and soul on that stage. I absolutely think she could be Miss America in a heartbeat, and would be an exceptional Miss America. She has all the goods — highly intelligent, coupled with talents and her incredible gift of wanting to give back and all of the community service. … I've been around the pageant world for many years, and she absolutely has the 'It' factor."
Beth McShane, the Miss Oregon executive director, said "Sophia is a force to be reckoned with. I've had the pleasure to work with dozens of candidates through the decades — Katie Harman was one — and I haven't had goose bumps about a candidate going into Miss America in a long time. She is what I like to call the perfect storm with perfect place and purpose. Her entire life was leading to this moment. Sophia definitely has the 'It' factor in spades."
The former Miss America Harman, during Takla's lunch with her, offered some advice on how to approach the competition.
"It's a hard job. Being a title holder is a really hard job," Takla said. "No one takes it lightly.
"I've met all 51 contestants. If I have the opportunity to be Miss America, it can be big for me in terms of theater and connections and networking. But, I'd be thrilled for any of them to be Miss America."