A star is born: Daughter of Holland native crowned Miss Teen USA

Kaliegh Garris, an 18-year-old high school senior from New Haven, Connecticut, was recently crowned Miss Teen USA at the national pageant in Reno, Nevada. She is the daughter of Tammy Venenga, a Holland native and 1984 Grundy Center High School graduate, and the granddaughter of Gene Venenga, who lives in Parkersburg. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Venenga)

Since she was crowned Miss Teen USA last month, Kaliegh Garris has become a mainstay in the national media: she appeared on “CBS This Morning,” and writers at People Magazine, The New York Times, NBC News and CNN, among other outlets, have all profiled her. But her mother, Tammy Venenga, couldn’t wait to contact the newspapers back home.

Venenga, a Holland native and 1984 GCHS graduate, is an especially proud parent these days: after years of trials and tribulations, all of the hard work has paid off for her 18-year-old daughter. And through her victory, Garris, who is biracial, has helped to make history in the process: for the first time, the winners of Miss Teen USA, Miss USA and Miss America are all black women. She drew special praise for wearing her natural curls throughout the pageant over the objections of some initial naysayers.

It all started when Kaliegh won a pageant at the age of five, but even then, Venenga, who moved to Connecticut to obtain a master’s degree and took a job with the state’s Department of Developmental Services (she now resides in the New Haven area), was hesitant about taking it any further than that.

“(Kaliegh) wanted to do more. I said no, because other girls came off the stage crying, and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to do that to her,’” she said. “(But) we waited a few years, and she asked again. I insisted that she could only do one pageant a year, and it had to be a natural pageant where she had to look her age, dress her age and act her age.”

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