The state’s pageant world is grappling with a loss this week after the newly crowned Miss Chadron 2018 was found dead in her dorm room over the weekend.
Kaelia Nelson, 21, a 2015 graduate of Hemingford High School, was discovered in Morgan Hall, a female dormitory at Peru State College, Sunday afternoon, according to Nemaha County Sheriff Brent Lottman. It is believed she took her own life and no foul play is suspected, he said.
“We are heartbroken at the loss of Kaelia,” Rachel Daly, Executive Director of the Miss Nebraska organization, said in an emailed statement. “She was a confident, talented young woman and we were thrilled that she was going to join us once again this summer. Our thoughts and prayers are with Kaelia’s family and all of those who loved her.”
Nelson was crowned Miss Chadron 2018 in September and was scheduled to compete for the Miss Nebraska title next June. She already had competed at the state competition this past June, previously having earned the Miss Alliance title. She was recognized at the 2017 competition for having raised the most money for the Children’s Miracle Network.
“Kaelia was a young woman exemplifying the phrase ‘big things come in little packages’: she was a petite powerhouse, exuding talent and energy when she danced, and demonstrating leadership and confidence in every part of her life. She devoted herself to a cause she was extremely passionate about, ‘Stomping the Stigma: Creating Conversations about Mental Illness.’ Kaelia was truly a bright light, shining everywhere she touched throughout our state,” Daly’s statement continued.
Before her appearance at Nebraskaland Days this past summer, Nelson told the North Platte Telegraph in April that her platform was a deeply personal one.
“I live with anxiety, depression, bipolar and obsessive compulsive disorder. People are afraid to step forward and admit to having a mental illness because society has made it such a taboo thing to the point where people are afraid to even talk about it,” she told the Telegraph. Statistics on suicide, prevention and treatment and her own personal story of attempting to take her life in 2016 were topics of discussion when she visited classrooms across the state.
“I felt extremely alone and hopeless in the battle against my own illnesses. Individuals are scared of what people may think of them and therefore do not seek treatment. The consequences can be life threatening. I never want anyone else to feel alone or ashamed like I did, especially not for something they cannot control. This is why I have made it my mission to speak out and share my story in hopes that people will see and understand that it can happen to anyone and it definitely is not something to be ashamed of,” she told the Telegraph.
Monday, the Miss Nebraska Organization also recalled Nelson’s words from last spring about possibly winning the state title:
“I would absolutely love to win Miss Nebraska and get to represent this amazing state, but my main goal isn’t about the crown on my head,” said Nelson last spring. “Instead, it’s the message I have to share and the people I get to meet because of it. It’s what you set your mind and heart to that will count in the long run.”
In addition to her Miss Alliance and Miss Chadron titles, Nelson was crowned Miss Chadron Outstanding Teen in 2011 and Miss Alliance Outstanding Teen in 2012; she was first runner up at the state competition in 2012 for the Miss Nebraska Outstanding Teen crown. She also represented Nebraska at the 2015 installment of America’s Homecoming Queen, where she was named second runner-up.
Nelson was studying elementary education, K-12 special education and coaching at Peru State, which she began attending in January after spending a year and a half at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Peru State College President Dan Hanson expressed condolences to Nelson’s family and friends in an email sent to students and faculty at the college Sunday night. Nelson was a junior at the school and a member of the cheerleading squad.
“Kaelia has a ladder of personal goals and dreams that she just keeps climbing, it is amazing to watch,” said her Peru State cheerleading coach Brooke Earnest after Nelson was crowned as Miss Chadron this fall. “She is truly a joy to be around; her passion and drive are simply contagious.”
Services for Nelson, the daughter of Mark and Shardel Nelson, are planned for Saturday, Nov. 4, at 2 p.m. at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Alliance.
A complete obituary appears on Page A-2 of today’s Chadron Record.
Editor's Note: This version corrects the statement that the Miss Nebraska competition takes place during Nebraskaland Days. It does not. We apologize for the error.