Her journey to the crown

Veronica Quintero stands with other Seafair court members at the coronation ceremony during Seafair in July. Photo by Courtesy photo.

The worries of a traditional nine-year-old are few: when the bell will ring for recess, what could be waiting in a lunch box nearby or how many more days until summer break. But for UW junior Veronica Quintero, being nine was anything but carefree.

In 2000, Quintero, a native of Mattawa, Wash., was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the white blood cells. Due to chemotherapy treatments and a compromised immune system, Quintero was confined to a hospital bed for almost an entire year.

“I literally didn’t breathe the outside air for months,” she said. “I felt like I was being deprived. I felt like my whole class, all of my friends, were all advancing with life and I was being held captive in this room.”

Lymphoma affects the white blood cells — units responsible for fighting disease in the body — and depresses the immune system, which leaves patients extremely vulnerable to dangerous infections. Even a small piece of dust can lead to a potentially fatal situation. However, after months of chemotherapy and several more months of recovery — which included surgery — Quintero left the hospital.

“When I left the hospital, I felt like the sun was so much to handle,” she said. “I felt like I needed to be enclosed in a bubble. I felt like I had to learn how to live again and be normal because I felt like I had been a baby.”

Now, 11 years since her diagnosis and no longer a child, Quintero draws strength from her experience and has used it in her newest endeavor: the Seafair Scholarship Program for Women.

This past May, Quintero was crowned Miss Hispanic Seafair, and on July 30, she was named the 62nd Annual Miss Seafair. She is the first Miss Hispanic Seafair to capture the title of Miss Seafair. Contestants in the Seafair Scholarship Program are judged on academics, public speaking, interview skills and community involvement. Various communities in the Seattle area select one representative to compete for the crown of Miss Seafair, similar to states sending contestants to the Miss America pageant.

Over the course of her reign as Miss Seafair, Quintero will be making more than 100 appearances in Seattle communities as well as working on her own community service platform, Veronica’s Challenge: 11 Years of Hope, inspired by her battle with cancer. This project draws from the year that Quintero was in treatment and the 10 years she has been cancer-free. During her time as a contestant for Miss Hispanic Seafair, Quintero completed 10 community-service projects and is currently working on her 11th to represent the 11th year in her challenge. For this project, she hopes to revisit the situation she once endured and work with young cancer patients.

“My idea is developing a princess workshop,” Quintero said. “I’m thinking of setting up a glam photo-shoot session where I work with these girls. It’s all about raising their self-esteem and making them feel beautiful.”

Quintero’s community service extends far beyond just those affected by cancer. As a member of Lamda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority and the Latino Student Union, Quintero had been active in the Latino community long before being crowned Miss Hispanic Seafair. Completing her 11th challenge and working with cancer patients is a way to come full-circle, as Quintero struggled with her own self-esteem while fighting cancer.

“My hair falling out, my eyelashes, my eyebrows, my nails — that was hard to deal with,” she said. “To put it straight forward, I felt ugly. Not having that confidence, not feeling beautiful, that can really bring you down and just make the whole experience worse.”

During her own battle against cancer, Quintero remembers being inspired by survivors who served as a symbol of hope, something that she aspires to be while completing her 11th community service project. But her struggle was something she thought few could understand at the time.

“People would say, ‘I bet you feel like this’ or ‘I bet you feel like that’ or ‘I’m sure you feel this way,’ and I’m like ‘No, you don’t know, I know you want to empathize with me, but you can’t,’” she said. “It was frustrating because unless you’re going through this, you don’t know what it is.”

With few people around who could truly comprehend her struggle, Quintero’s childhood was a short one. Following her departure from the hospital, she stayed at the Ronald McDonald House. While most kids her age enjoyed playing outside, Quintero continued to spend most of her time in bed.

“It was definitely a life changing experience — I feel like that time really shaped who I am now and my thinking, my maturity,” she said. “I feel like I was forced to grow up so fast.”

Adjusting to life outside the hospital was initially difficult for Quintero. Months of chemotherapy and treatment drained the nine-year-old of much of her energy and many of the smallest tasks left her exhausted. But soon she was able to piece her life back together. She gained her energy back and spent time walking and enjoying the outdoors, which she wasn’t capable of doing before. Being unable to attend school has Quintero advocating for something she sorely missed during her year of treatment.

“I always loved learning, so it was hard not being in school,” she said. “[The Seafair Scholarship Program] is all about striving for higher education. I feel like if you want to make any kind of change, you need to be educated and you need to really strive for that education.”

Despite difficulties, Quintero never lost faith, something that she hopes she can inspire others to do in her time as Miss Seafair.

“Whatever aspect of my life story inspires you, that’s OK, as long as something motivates you,” she said. “Anything you set your mind to, you can do it. It might take a little work; it might take sacrifice along the way. A lot of doors will shut in your face, but that’s when you look for another way to make it happen.”

Reach contributing writer Thuc Nhi Nguyen at development@dailyuw.com.

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