Many members of the Beecher Road School community know Teresa Nakouzi as a talented teacher and the school’s language arts specialist. But lately she has been seen at public events in the area, wearing a rhinestone crown and a sash, and that outfit is not a costume. Nakouzi, also known by her maiden name as Teresa Ladopoulos, last May won the Mrs. Connecticut America crown, and has been representing the state at many different functions.
It’s not the only crown she wears. Just about a year ago, she also won the Ms. New England pageant, a charity-based contest. Participants can pick a charity of their choice and represent it at the pageant. For Nakouzi, it was the Canine First Responders, a charity that brings dogs to bereaved families, such as the survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting.
To prepare for the pageant, she had to create and decorate a charity box – with contacts to many charitable organizations. They all welcomed her outreach, ranging from Special Olympics to Make a Wish and Habitat for Humanity. She has since brought a bit of glamor and charm to myriad events for these organizations. Her role, as she sees it, is “to highlight the many great organizations in the state and draw attention to the volunteers that get the work done. I am there to help them out,” she said.
Come November 17, for instance, she will be master of ceremonies at a fashion show for the benefit of Habitat’s Sleeping Giant Build – the Hamden-based Habitat group. The event will be held from 7-9 p.m. at Spring Glen Church. Entrants at the fashion show are to design their own outfits, using “treasures” from the construction. “There are some wild, imaginative outfits,” she said in anticipation of the event. In addition to Mrs. Connecticut America herself there will be a special guest as well as prestigious judges, event organizers say. The chief judge is a well-known media personality, Nakouzi said, but she wouldn’t reveal the name.
Nakouzi rode in a top-down car in New Haven’s Columbus Day parade together with her husband, Elie. She represented the Italian American Women of Greater New Haven. Nakouzi is Italian on her mother’s side, while her father’s heritage was Greek. Earlier in the year she was part of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, representing Ms. New England. At the Big E she represented Connecticut. It is, in a way, the closest thing to royalty the state has. At many of these events she will be greeted enthusiastically by present and former students and their families.
One such event happened right here, in Woodbridge, and in true Woodbridge fashion at the Community Gardens, where Dr. Durga Prasad rededicated the rose garden installed in memory of his wife, Shanti. Both Nakouzi and First Selectman Beth Heller were in attendance. Nakouzi had taught two of Dr. Prasad’s grandchildren.
Asked how she could possibly fit all those activities into one day, in addition to a demanding workday at the school, she smiles. “I have an incredible husband,” she said. Indeed, Elie was by her side at many of these events, including the day she flew out to Las Vegas for the Mrs. America pageant in August. Traveling with three huge gowns and several bags filled with outfits and gifts for 52 fellow contestants was no small feat. In fact, they had a part of the overhead bins reserved for her on the flight. Of course, many travelers as well as crew and pilots took an interest and feted her. She gained new Facebook fans even before the arrival in Nevada.
The Mrs. America pageant was one of the highlights of this year’s experience. When she talks about the five days at the Westgate resort in Las Vegas, it sounds like a whirlwind five-day tour de force.
“They really want to know who you are, what inspires you,” Nakouzi said. And, “you’re putting yourself in front of the world.” She placed among the top 20. The contest, which is for married women, consists of three categories, namely the swimsuit/fitness portion, the evening gown and an interview. A choreography team taught them a dance routine (“They took attendance!”)
For the costume parade she had chosen the Genius of Connecticut, a bronze statue on the pinnacle of the State Capitol. An oakleaf crown as well as a wreath of mountain laurel and wide wings were part of the costume. The statue is to represent the state’s spirit of innovation, she said, referencing Connecticut firsts, such as the frisbee and the can opener.
According to the website ctexplored.org the original Genius statue was melted down for precious metals during World War II. It is not until 2009 that a replica was re-cast. It is now housed inside the Capitol, Nakouzi said. She went to look at the statue when the state presented her with an official proclamation as a leader in promoting literacy.
Though enthusiastic about all the organizations she has represented, two causes seem to be close to her heart, literacy and animals. One in four kids are functionally illiterate, she said, citing national statistics; 14 % of adults do not read beyond fifth grade level. And a third of U.S. high school graduates never read a book after high school. Those are the issues she is most concerned about. In addition to her day job as language arts specialist, she also volunteers at the Woodbridge Town Library. At the school’s summer program, she helped facilitate the visit of Annie, the Reading Dog, a program where children who may hesitate to read can do so to a live and nonjudgmental dog.
“I try to walk the walk and talk the talk,” she said. “Nothing is more beautiful than helping people. Your words, your actions can have an impact.”
She is currently reaching out to other women to convince them to compete in the Ms. New England pageant. The experience has been an incredible opportunity for growth, she said, adding how much women can learn about themselves when challenged in this way.
She feels grateful for the many people who have supported her on this journey, first and foremost husband Elie. He is proud of her accomplishments. “I admire her,” he said. “It brings you closer together.”
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent