bSMART Guide

Sarah Hillware is the former America’s Miss District of Columbia 2012 and is an outspoken advocate for many revolutionary causes, including health education and women’s empowerment.  She is the Founder and Director of Girls Health Ed., a health-education program for elementary and high school girls in the Washington, DC area, and has held various global health, policy, programming and research positions.  

Sarah was selected to serve as a delegate to the G8 Young Leaders Summit in London and was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for service and leadership.  On September 16th, she gave a TEDx talk at the United Nations entitled "Harnessing the Power of Girls.”

She has received the Presidential Academic Scholarship for academic excellence, has been featured as a spoken word artist at the 5th Annual Activist Award & Grassroots Gala in Washington, DC, received nominations for "The YSA List: The 25 Most Powerful and Influential Young People" and the 2011 "Under 25 Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year" competitions.


Being able to use who I am to give back has been my greatest accomplishment.


Healthy Living

When did your passion for girls’ health education begin? 

When I was about twelve years old I had to flee from a domestic violence situation.  My mom, younger siblings and I left in the middle of the night and drove until we reached Washington, D.C.  From that point we lived in shelters and transitional homes healing and getting our lives back on track.  I was overweight throughout this abusive situation.  I struggled with depression, had low self-confidence, and didn’t feel like I had control over my emotions.  As an outlet for the pain I was experiencing, I would eat - I would eat a lot at one time.  I realized once I got out of that situation that I actually did have control over what I put into my body.  This realization translated into other parts of my life, as well.  Realizing I had power over what I put into my body actually made me realize that I had power over my emotions and the way I felt about myself. 

There was a turning point I vividly remember - I was at a doctor's visit and weighed 157 pounds at 5'2" tall.  I was unhealthy, I didn’t meet the physical fitness standards in gym class, and I couldn’t participate in sports because I wasn't living a healthy life.  But I eventually went on to lose that weight and gain self-confidence once I realized I can take control of my body.  When I was a teenager I had some headshots taken and modeled for a few local fashion designers and participated in fashion shows.  When I was seventeen, a pageant coordinator who saw my headshot on Facebook reached out to me.  This gorgeous woman sent me a message out of nowhere, and asked if I wanted to be a contestant in this pageant.  They had slots open and wanted to have me, so I entered.  That year I competed against eighteen other girls, and although I got an award, I didn’t win.  So I moved on with my life.

I started a radio show, and that empowered me to get into public speaking a little bit more and gave me a platform to tell my story.  From there, I was contacted again by a representative from another pageant, and she asked me if I would like to compete.  I replied, ‘Well, I don’t know. I lost the last time. I don’t know if I want to lose again.’  But I went for it, and was crowned in January 2012 with the title of America’s Miss DC.  In July, I competed for the national pageant and did well there.  When you’re a pageant title-holder, you do appearances multiple times a week, so I would go into schools and talk to girls about body image and tell the story of how I became a pageant winner.  It was a healing experience for me to be able to say, ‘I know what you’re going through.’  I really do hope that it was healing for them as well; to know that there is somebody who is successful, who is living a healthy life, who they can look up to, and who went through the same struggles they’re encountering.  It’s from that place of healing that my passion originates.

Can you tell us about Girl’s Health Ed. and what your program offers elementary and high school girls in the DC area?

After visiting schools and seeing these amazing girls have so much to offer, I began to wonder how I could facilitate girls’ growth and development in a positive way.  One night, I stayed up until five o’clock in the morning drafting a mission statement, thinking of a name, and making lists of smart friends and thinkers who could support my vision - doctors, educators, public relations representatives, nutritionists, etc.  I got them all together, and we drafted a curriculum that concentrated on wellness and living a healthy life, not just physically but head-to-toe, inside-and-out wellness.  This became Girls Health Ed, a program that gained attention on an international scale.  I graduated from George Washington University with a degree in International Affairs and a concentration in global public health, so I had an international perspective going into this venture.  However, being nominated to the G8 Young Summit helped me to see where Girls Health Ed could fit into the global agenda.  

Right now there are a lot of issues surrounding gender equality and women’s empowerment, and I realized that through Girls Health Ed, I could really shape the debate.  I had this great conversation with the executive curator of the TEDx United Nations Plaza about health on a global sphere, and he told me, ‘I really like your passion and energy. I think that what you have to say matters. You should come speak in the women’s empowerment session about self-education.’  Now, I’ve given a talk on “Harnessing the Power of Girls” at the UN Headquarters, which is so exciting because it’s a huge platform for me to share my story and spread the word about the power of girls around the world. 

What are the health policies you hope to create in the U.S. and around the world?  

When it comes to women’s and girls’ health on an international scale, there are so many different issues that are rarely addressed because they seem taboo.  Menstruation is one of those issues.  In many parts of what we call the Global South (areas in sub-Saharan Africa, in India, in some parts of the Middle East, even some parts of Latin America), many girls drop out of school around the time they get their periods.  This is largely caused by structural and social issues.  In some cultures there’s a myth that girls who have begun menstruation have lost their virginity and are no longer clean.  For example, in India there’s an additional stigma that dictates that girls are not allowed to touch anything in the kitchen or participate in society when they’re going through menstruation.  In the Kibera slums in Kenya, the bathrooms aren’t gender separated.  Girls and boys use the same bathroom, so girls face violence and further stigma because they don’t have the tools to manage their menstruation while at school.  That’s humiliating and unacceptable.  

It’s because of these issues that girls are being set apart.  They’re not being given equal treatment or rights.  It’s great that as a society we’re funding so many other initiatives - that we are making leaps and bounds in terms of condom usage, clean water, and girls’ education, but these projects will be hindered unless we realize that there are certain topics we’re not talking about.  Girls’ health in particular is one of those taboo topics.  If we could simply give sanitary napkins to girls, or if we could separate bathrooms by gender, or if we could teach the girls how to use these tools once they get them, it would make a huge difference for women around the world. 

What advice do you have for bSmart members who are struggling to live a healthy life or have a healthy self-image?

In the United States, young women are constantly fed images and messages about what our bodies should look like, how we should feel about our bodies, and who our bodies ultimately belong to.  It’s so crucial to educate women so they feel empowered to say, ‘It’s up to me what my body looks like. It’s up to me how I feel about my body. My body, in all arenas, is my own. I own my body. It’s mine.’  We need to teach our girls about self-image and what their different body parts are.  What is the vulva and clitoris?  What does that mean to know your own anatomy?  We need to teach body-awareness and anatomy along with self-acceptance.  Self-confidence is something that can be taught and instilled just like self-loathing.  In the United States, we have this dichotomy between girls who are suffering from eating disorders and girls who are overweight, but both of these issues are self-loathing on two opposite sides of the spectrum.  What we need to do is use physical fitness, nutrition, skin care, and reproductive health to convey the idea that body image is something they can own.


Self-confidence is something that can be taught and instilled just like self-loathing.


About Sarah

What did you learn during your year as America’s Miss District of Columbia 2012? 

After winning the title and gaining this huge platform as a woman leader, I realized that I have a voice and power.  I was talking to some of my friends who were teachers, and they asked me to come speak to their students.  I said I would love to, but I asked them what they wanted me to talk about.  They said the topic itself didn’t matter as much as the symbolism of the crown and sash and the fact that I had become someone their students could aspire to be.  I would go into schools and talk about 'beauty.'  I think beauty is such an important thing - for these girls to be able to see that it’s not all about what’s on the outside.  I would ask the girls, ‘What makes you beautiful?’  A lot of them would say things that were very surface-level at first, but once we got down to talking about who they were as unique individuals, they would tell me, ‘I’m beautiful because I’m a good singer’ or ‘I’m beautiful because I’m kind.’  Those are the moments that really resonate with me from the work I'm doing.  If you were to ask me what’s beautiful, I’d tell you, ‘Beauty is strength.’

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment personally or philanthropically?

I think one of my biggest personal, professional and philanthropic accomplishments is that I had a story and the courage to share my story, and the opportunity to make myself vulnerable so that others could benefit.  Being able to use who I am to give back has been my greatest accomplishment. 

What is the greatest lesson you learned serving your community and advocating for girls’ health? 

I failed a lot.  There have been a lot of things I’ve done that have been unsuccessful.  The biggest challenge for me has been to accept failure and realize that failure is a learning experience.  Failure can only make you better.  I know a lot of people say that, but it’s true.  When you fail once, learn all you can from that failure and apply it to the next thing. 

What advice would you give your younger self at age 11?

You can handle more than you think you can.  What you’re going through or what you will go through only makes you stronger in the end.  You may think of yourself right now as a chunk of coal, but later, you’ll definitely be a diamond.  You are somebody who has all the potential in the world, and all you have to do is realize it.

What do you want all bSmart members to know about your story that would help them bSmart too?

You have a story.  Everybody has a story.  As soon as you are able to harness that story, make it a tool in your life and use it whenever you have the opportunity.  Do not be afraid to be vulnerable.  Do not worry about being judged.  Let me tell you, whatever story you have to tell, there’s somebody else out there in the world who has gone through exactly what you’ve gone through.  So use your story.  Use your story to brand yourself.  Use it to make a difference.


You are somebody who has all the potential in the world. All you have to do is realize it.



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