Casey Clayton and Amanda Moreno

Amanda Moreno was in a panic. “You’d think I would’ve been more prepared for a contest called, you know, Prepared Speech,” she laughs now about her first SkillsUSA regional competition. “I didn’t realize I couldn’t use note cards until I was about to start. I was supposed to have the speech memorized.” Moreno decided to face the challenge, relax and “be the best Amanda I can be.”

She’s well on her way. A video broadcasting student at Rockdale Career Academy in Conyers, Ga., the 18-year-old went on to become National American Miss Georgia Teen, started her own successful pageant training business and landed a role in a television show called “Wildflowers.” But that first regional SkillsUSA leadership competition in 2009 — which she won — was an epiphany that helped Moreno wrangle her dreams into reality.

“Once I started doing my speech, I really got into it, and I was speaking with passion, which I think is the most important thing when you’re presenting yourself,” she says. Regional gold led to a victory at the state competition and a fourth-place finish at nationals, where Moreno was the top-ranking female contestant. “Being fourth in the nation when I didn’t think I’d win regionals was so exciting, a blessing.”

Becoming a SkillsUSA chapter president during her first year of membership was a role that helped her hone her natural leadership skills.

“SkillsUSA taught me that when you’re dealing with different people, you have to find a common ground,” she explains. “A good leader inspires a team to have confidence in that leader, but a great leader inspires the members of that team to have confidence in themselves.”

Moreno had entered the National American Miss Georgia Teen competition in 2009 but didn’t place. She says SkillsUSA experiences inspired her to return the next year with newfound leadership skills and revived confidence.

“Winning is not about being a size 0, it’s not about being perfect looking,” adds Moreno, who outscored nearly 200 other teens to claim the title. “I was not the prettiest, the tallest or the thinnest. But if you look at my scores, I continually win my interview competition, and that’s very important to me. In life, those skills are going to take me somewhere, and those are things I’ve learned in SkillsUSA.”

Later that year, she barely missed winning the national crown. While first runner-up wasn’t exactly the result she wanted, Moreno isn’t complaining. “There was no reason to be upset,” she says. “I did the absolute best I could do, and I handled it like I’d want someone else to handle it if I was named queen.”

Moreno plans to take one more shot at it, but in the meantime, she’s started training other pageant hopefuls, using the methods that helped her. Her first client, a friend with little experience, won the national Miss American Coed competition. “I coached her to be the best Stephanie, and she did it,” Moreno, who’s now handling multiple clients, says proudly.

Acting is another of her passions. She’s taken lessons and performed in a variety of plays and productions. When a part on the “Wildflowers” television show opened up, the student decided to audition. It was a déjà vu experience.

“I didn’t realize it was a singing show until I got to the audition,” she says. You can probably imagine how the story ends. Moreno relaxed, belted out what she could remember of the theme to “The Little Mermaid” and won the role. Producers are shopping a pilot to various networks and hope to land a deal soon.

Meanwhile, Moreno is plotting a return to the SkillsUSA Championships as a Prepared Speech competitor. “Our regionals is just around the corner,” she says, “and my speech is done and memorized. I’m good to go this time.”

Leadership Through Hardship

SkillsUSA NLSCLike many successful leaders, Casey Clayton, SkillsUSA Colorado vice president, turned difficulties into opportunities, not excuses. “I grew up a poor kid,” she explains, “a paycheck away from being homeless. It was a difficult situation.”

In high school (“back when MySpace was cool,” she says), Clayton created Girls with a Voice, a program designed to “help girls love themselves and find their true beauty.” Now she’s planning a new interactive program called Get Connected, which she plans to take to nearby schools.

“I wanted to create a program that helps all teens break down their walls and live above peer pressure,” the 20-year-old says. “I want them to learn to be OK with who they are and know they are somebody in this big world.”

An English and marketing student at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Clayton credits the leadership training she’s received (and helped administer) as a SkillsUSA state officer with helping her become what she calls a “positive promoter.”

“Many kids make choices because of peer pressure, but what if that pressure was positive?” she asks.

“SkillsUSA has given me the tools to create a sturdy foundation that makes me comfortable being me. It’s the little things that really make me realize how much SkillsUSA means to me. Now, everywhere I go, I want to pump joy or at least a smile into this world.”