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Miss Oregon USA reflects on service trip to Uganda

"That's what I want to push for more of in my year as Miss Oregon USA: this incredible sense of community that I think we don’t quite experience."

PORTLAND, Ore — A few weeks after she was crowned, Miss Oregon USA was invited to set out on a trip of a lifetime.

Katerina Villegas' time in Uganda was spent empowering women and opening up conversations about mental health.    

She returned at the beginning of March and sat down with KGW's Morgan Romero to talk about why it was such a rewarding and humbling experience.

Miss Oregon USA was asked to join the reigning 2020 Miss Uganda North America and take a trip to her roots. It was for the third annual Cares Tour of Uganda, organized by Miss Uganda North America.

“It just so happened the organization's stance and platform was on mental health which is something I'm focusing on because I'm a doctorate student in psychology. So I thought, what are the chances of this happening? So I just said yes, I'll go. In a heartbeat!” Katerina Villegas said. “I'm the complete outsider who got to go experience this incredible journey.”

She was eager to represent our beautiful state - and eager to give back.

While she was there, she found stark cultural differences.

“That was the basis of our trip: going to empower young women everywhere we went. We met with high school girls at a boarding school to talk to them about issues of mental health, we met with teen moms who escaped human trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual abuse as well,” Villegas said. “They wanted to know: 'Why empower the girl child? What about the boy child?' And I thought to myself, that just goes to show you how different culture is here in America versus in another part of the world.”

Credit: Miss Oregon USA

Katerina didn't go in with any expectations; the way she prepared was by telling herself it wasn’t going to be easy, but it would be rewarding. That allowed her to set an open mind going in to the trip.

Her only free hour of the day she spent napping. Each moment was packed with community service, visits and appearances. Katerina got a little sight-seeing in: she visited Murchison Falls National Park and went on a safari.

"We visited the Katanga Slums. So we went to clean up with gloves, boots and masks on and said we are going to teach the children how to have good hygiene and throw trash away. Because it is a mostly child-dominated area,” she said. “It was hard. It was really hard to experience but it was also important.”

She learned to appreciate much of what we take for granted in the United States. Katerina says listening and learning from people’s world views and experiences that are so vastly different than hers, thousands of miles away, was life-changing.

“You learn so much from other people when you're willing to give it a chance and listen to how other people live their lives and how they view the world," Villegas added.

With a more open mind, Miss Oregon USA brought home valuable lessons, like the importance of community and supporting your family.

“I watched it in action; I watched how families truly support one another and they’re there no matter what the circumstance. And you watch as these teen moms experience these drastic events and you have these complete strangers come in and take them in as family. That’s what I want to push for more of in my year as Miss Oregon USA: this incredible sense of community that I think we don’t quite experience.”