PENINSULA WOMAN: Dietitian stepping onto stage as contestant for Miss Washington USA

PORT ANGELES — Maria-Lourdes Aragon takes it in stride when someone asks her how on Earth she got to Port Angeles.

“I was just talking to a gentleman who said, ‘You’re young, you’re single. What are you doing here?’” Aragon, 25, recalls.

She’s doing plenty: Running in next month’s Miss Washington USA pageant, which could qualify her for the Miss USA competition, while juggling three jobs.

And to her mind, Port Angeles is no sleepy spot.

“It’s not the geographic area you’re in that determines what you can do,” Aragon believes. “It’s about who you are.”

Born and raised in a Filipino-American family in Bremerton, Aragon is the youngest of five siblings. She is also the first in her household to earn a four-year college degree and to become a health care professional. She graduated with honors from Central Washington University, then went to San Diego to work in the Veterans Affairs Medical Clinic; upon completing her internship there, Aragon returned to her home state, where she’d landed a position as a clinical dietitian in Port Angeles’ VA clinic.

She proceeded to get another job, at the Clallam County YMCA, where she staffed the front desk.

“I knew the Y would be a safe place to network and to meet people with similar values,” Aragon says. Two principal values: health and happiness, which this nutritionist practices— and gently preaches.

If she wins the Miss Washington USA pageant, to be held Oct. 8-9 in Burien, Aragon will look not toward the modeling or acting career many contestants dream of, but instead to a role as a spokeswoman for good nutrition. One of her fondest desires is to work with children, to help them relish the discovery of new, nourishing foods.

These things may sound simple, but Aragon well knows that when it comes to humans and their diets, everything gets complex.

“People are passionately connected to food,” she says. And of course, food is connected to all levels of well-being.

She works with veterans, ranging in age from 30s to 60s and older, on weight loss, cholesterol problems and diabetes. And now, having transitioned from working at the Y to joining dietitian Amanda Cash at Nutrition Trails, Aragon counsels patients at Crestwood Convalescent Center in Port Angeles.

Oh, and then she’s a clinical dietitian on call at Olympic Medical Center.

At the same time, her run for Miss Washington adds much more to her schedule: fundraising for the pageant scholarship fund, public appearances and all-day practice sessions.

Aragon is driven to balance it all, though. A pageant win would give her the chance to serve as a role model around the state and potentially beyond it.

Aragon has met people who are skeptical about pageants and who see them as shallow beauty contests. What they don’t realize, she says, is that rigorous offstage interviews with judges, about personal goals and ethics, play a major part in who becomes Miss Washington USA.

As a girl, Aragon thought of pageants as fun and glamorous — but that didn’t mean she saw herself competing in one.

But since graduating from college and starting her career in nutrition, she’s built a strong foundation of confidence.

“When I was in college, there was a lot of pressure,” she says, adding that it feels good now to look back and say, “You did that.”

Moving on her own to Port Angeles and working as a health care professional, in a variety of settings, has given her courage to try things outside her comfort zone.

“I’ve been pushing myself to do things I never thought I would do,” she says.

One thing she’s learned in the past year: “Anything is possible.”

Aragon doesn’t deny that her work schedule can get a little crazy. But she’s made her health a top priority, with sleep and yoga high on the to-do list.

“The main thing that’s kept me sane is going to the gym,” she says. “Yoga, dancing [and] working out [at the YMCA] keep me recharged.”

Jenny Stamm, a social worker and Aragon’s colleague at the VA clinic, admires the way Aragon works with veterans as they contend with long-standing health problems.

“She’s learning motivational interviewing,” Stamm says, referring to the practice of learning what each patient can do for his or her own healing, and reinforcing that.

“She’s learned that it’s important to just listen to the veterans’ stories. That’s therapeutic,” Stamm adds. In health care, “we’re trained to operate like robots.”

But Aragon understands that listening, that unrobotic skill, can make all the difference.

Aragon started out with almost no self-confidence, Stamm says, adding that she has seen a major change since Aragon came to the clinic in September 2010.

Stamm also sees Aragon as a role model — not just a pretty face, but an example of health in body and mind.

“She has a wonderful heart,” Stamm adds.

At the Y, Aragon takes Zumba-inspired aerobic dance classes, which have reminded her how much she’s always loved moving to music. And the gym is also where she met Alyssa Polly, a Miss Washington USA teen division contestant. The pair has attended events around the region, such as A Taste of Edmonds on Aug. 13.

Polly, 17, is becoming more outgoing, with a little help from her friend Aragon. Public speaking, networking with people at a big gathering — it all can be fraught with stress, Aragon says, and she’s delighted to see Polly stepping into it with growing confidence. At A Taste of Edmonds, they walked in together, but “after a while, I realized she was on her own, talking to everyone,” Aragon recalls.

The Miss Washington USA title comes with a scholarship, which Aragon would put toward earning her master’s. She knows she wants the graduate degree but is still deciding whether to work toward a master’s in nutrition, business administration or public health.

That master’s in public health is the one she’s leaning toward, because it could enable her to work in public schools. Aragon envisions ways to make learning about nutrition fun for young children. And for people of all ages, she wants to take the fear factor out of cooking in one’s own kitchen.

“I grew up cooking. But most of my friends didn’t cook,” Aragon says, adding that her two favorite foods are sinigang, a Filipino soup with beef, baby bok choy, onions and “a bunch of veggies,” and good old-fashioned spaghetti.

“I make homemade sauce,” she says, “and I change it up every time.”

For those who want to venture into cooking with fresh produce — one of Aragon’s tickets to health — she recommends buying just enough for one or two meals. Sometimes people get a little ahead of themselves, buy too much and, when some goes to waste, say “never again.” Start small, Aragon advises.

Then she serves a reporter a bowl of ice-cold cantaloupe and blueberries, and a glass of water with fresh spearmint.

Aragon understands that Americans have grown quite accustomed to fast food, microwaved meals and multiple snacks consumed in the car. Yet she is hopeful about the future of health care — and her own role in it. She has energy to spare when it comes to sharing knowledge about food and nutrition.

“Coming to Port Angeles has made me reflective,” she adds, “about who I am. The experiences I’ve had here have prepared me to be a nutrition spokesperson.”

As she enters the last few weeks before the Miss Washington USA pageant, Aragon looks forward to whatever the future brings.

Earning a degree, working in health care and choosing a small community in her home state, she says, have “empowered me to follow my heart.”

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