Miss SDSU promotes domestic violence awareness with Cycle to Stop the Cycle


Heather Johnson was 13 when she left her home.

It hasn’t been an easy road. Johnson and her two brothers went from foster home to foster home until she was 7, and then from family member to family member. Their mother raised them, and they were neglected, abused and malnourished.

Now at 21, she is a senior political science major as well as the current Miss SDSU.

“I don’t tell a lot of people,” Johnson said, adding that she felt embarrassed. “ … It’s not something I’ve wanted to talk about or wanted people to know.”

Johnson was adopted at age 13 by a family she babysat for, and in 2008 she enrolled at SDSU – the first person in her family to attend college. She became involved with various activities on campus – especially dance – before winning the Miss SDSU pageant in March.

She was the second runner up at the 2011 Miss South Dakota Pageant, her platform a presentation titled “Stop the Cycle of Domestic Violence.” She contacted the Brookings Domestic Abuse Shelter and is now partnering with them to promote the 5th annual Cycle to Stop the Cycle, an event to raise funds and awareness about domestic abuse.

Before taking up this cause, Johnson never talked about her past.

“I put on this smile and just pretended it didn’t happen,” Johnson said. “I don’t want people to look at me differently and think, ‘Oh, she’s a victim of domestic violence.’”

But now, her new role as Miss SDSU has given her a purpose, making it easier to open up about her own personal experience.

“Having the opportunity to partner with the shelter and make domestic violence my platform makes everything I went through worth it,” Johnson said. “The pain I endured can now provide strength for others.”

The cycle is on Sept. 24. Early registration is closed, but anyone can sign up at the event. Registration begins at 8 a.m. at the Brookings Chiropractic Center located at 3405 Sixth Street starting at 9 a.m. The cost is $30 for individuals and $60 for families.

Ashley Dahl, the shelter’s associate director, said the goal is to raise $10,000, all going toward the shelter.

They hope for 200 riders this year, which would be 100 more than last year.

One of Johnson’s responsibilities has been to promote the event to students, which hasn’t gone as successfully as she hoped.

“It’s harder than I thought to get campus involved, which is really kind of a shame,” she said said.

And it hasn’t just been students with a low response.

“Overall this year, we don’t have a lot of people pre-registering,” Dahl said. “We’re hoping people will just show up on the 24th.”

There will be four bike routes: 3, 6, 24 and 40 miles. After the ride, there will be cookies, massages and live entertainment.

The Brookings Domestic Abuse Shelter is just one of three domestic abuse shelters in South Dakota. Last year, it served 412 women, 69 of whom stayed at the shelter with their children. Services like support groups and legal advocacy are available to both men and women, but only women can stay overnight.

Johnson said lack of awareness of domestic violence is one of the biggest issues – especially, she said, when it comes to child abuse.

“How are you supposed to get good grades? How are you supposed to eat?” she said. “It needs to be a bigger issue. And education, I think, is key.”

In the past two years, Johnson was forced to endure more tragedy. Both her mom and her older brother committed suicide. She said that for some reason, they weren’t able to “make it out” like she was.

“I’m really religious, and for some reason God just gave me the strength to get through it,” she said.

She plans on using her story and her Miss SDSU title for a purpose.

“It’s so much more than wearing a shiny, inanimate object to me,” Johnson said. “It’s what I can do with the crown.”

Reporter Jordan Smith contributed to this report.