By Aaron Retherford
When Governor Peter Shumlin’s staff proclaims April as “Child Abuse Prevention Month” on April 1, recently-crowned Mrs. Vermont International, Ashleigh Ricciarelli, will see her crusade come to the forefront.
Ricciarelli isn’t your stereotypical pageant queen. She didn’t grow up in the pageant girl scene. She doesn’t live of life of glitz and glamour as an adult. In fact, she lives in low-income housing and needs government assistance. At 23, married and with three children of her own as well as a stepson, it’s been a struggle for her and her family.
But Mrs. International gave her the perfect outlet because it allows representatives to focus on a specific platform. And as a child abuse victim, Ricciarelli wants to end child abuse, starting right here in Vermont.
She might have lofty goals. Ending child abuse is no simple feat. But she’s been there. She knows how terrible the abuse can get, and she doesn’t want another child to experience abuse ever again.
“I know what it was to me,” Ricciarelli said. “Some of these kids are definitely getting it worse than I did. I feel like that says a lot. Anybody who knows my situation would probably agree. It’s just so sad.”
In her role with Mrs. Vermont International, Ricciarelli is supporting groups like Prevent Child Abuse Vermont and Our House of Washington County. Prevent Child Abuse Vermont will plant a “Pinwheel Garden” on the State House lawn Wednesday.
Ricciarelli, a Barre resident for the past three years, also serves on the Executive Committee for Capstone Community Action Headstart Policy Council.
Much of her work focuses on prevention. According to Prevent Child Abuse Vermont’s website, prevention measures do work as all types of child abuse in Vermont from 1990 to 2014 are down by over 50%.
She also hopes to educate those around Vermont about what signs to look for when identifying instances of potential child abuse. She said many people don’t realize how many resources are available.
Ricciarelli knows a big key to ending child abuse is breaking the cycle. She used Good Beginnings when she had her twin daughters as a single mom at age 19 to help her stay on top of things and keep her stress levels lower. She also sees therapists to help deal with the trauma of her child abuse. Ricciarelli and her husband, Jesse, take part in marriage counseling to make sure they maintain a supportive home for their children.
“We both agree that we don’t want our kids to live the lives we lived. We don’t want to make the same mistakes,” Ricciarelli said. “We want them to know we love them.”
Because she moved an average of three times a year while growing up, Ricciarelli said she wants her kids to have a stable place to live with electricity, warm water, heat, and healthy food since she didn’t always have those things. There’s a reason why she hates Sloppy Joes, spaghetti, meatloaf, and especially peanut putter and jelly.
So while Ricciarelli does receive government assistance in order to give her family what it deserves, she tries not to take more than she needs, and she made it very clear when interviewing for the Mrs. Vermont International title.
“I told them I really just wanted to do it, so I could make a difference,” she said. “Nobody is going to listen to me. I wouldn’t listen to me. I’m not really up enough on the ladder for people to want to listen to me. There is a lot of stigma on people who live in poverty or are low income. I can understand why because I see it, too.”
Ricciarelli will go on to compete for the Mrs. International crown in July. Mrs. International is also dedicated to fighting heart disease, the No. 1 killer of women, allowing the winner to work toward two important goals.
Ricciarelli is also working on her Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary Education because if it weren’t for her teachers, she wouldn’t be where she is today. She said teachers were her biggest influence and they stood by her and were patient.
“I may not have had the people who should have been there be there, but there were people there. God placed people there,” Ricciarelli said. “Every year growing up, there always seemed to be that one teacher that kept me going.”