Winning Miss Georgia Latina on Sept. 21 gave Danessa Elreya more than a crown and a title.
It gave her her self-esteem and confidence back.
For the first time publicly, Elreya shared her story with survivors of domestic violence and their supporters at Safe Homes of Augusta’s Survivors’ Walk on Oct. 24 at Georgia Regents University Summerville.
Elreya cried as she recalled the night of April 2011, when her then-boyfriend, James Herring, returned early from a weekend trip to find her loading her car with her belongings. The relationship, which had begun several months earlier, had become increasingly abusive.
“First it was just calling me names,” she said from the podium, wearing jeans, a blazer and her Miss Georgia Latina sash. “Then it was a push. And then it was a slap. And then it was choking. And then it was kicking. And then it was bruises that I had to hide.
“One day it got worse when I finally said, ‘You know, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t live like this,’” she said.
When the 300-pound, 6-foot-tall personal trainer returned to find Elreya preparing to leave, he threw her to the ground, punched her in the stomach, kicked her in the ribs, and choked her until she blacked out.
But for her, the worst injury was when he bit her face.
“Not only was it going to be a scar, but I was going to see that every single time I looked in the mirror,” she said. “It just hit at my self-esteem.”
Elreya grew up in an abusive household in Monetta, S.C. As a teenager, she spent much of her time in Augusta.
Her dream was to become a famous actress, and her image was important to her. Instead, she became known as “that girl that got her face bit.”
The story was reported in several news outlets in Georgia and South Carolina.
With the help of the Cumbee Center in Aiken, she was finally able to break free from the relationship, and Herring was arrested in May 2011.
This year, in early September, Elreya was invited to compete in the Miss Georgia Latina pageant.
She had never competed in a pageant before and had a week to prepare.
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to win this. I don’t know how to walk. I don’t know how to smile,’” she said.
She not only won, but earned the People’s Choice Award.
“For me to not only go and win, but also have the audience vote for me, it tells me that everyone saw something special, something that I didn’t even see,” she said.
She chose domestic violence as her platform. In addition to sharing her own story at events such as the Survivors’ Walk, she plans to develop a support group in Augusta for Hispanic women who are victims of domestic violence.
She said it is a big problem in the Hispanic community because many women can’t speak English and they don’t know where to turn for help, and they are scared.
In May, Elreya will compete for Miss U.S. Latina in the Dominican Republic. She said she wants to win because it will elevate her platform to the national level. If she wins that pageant, she will go on to compete for Miss Latin America of the World.
On a personal level, this pageant win means that she longer feels as though she is known as “that girl that got her face bit.”
She is known as someone who has a voice.
“You took somebody that had no confidence, that felt completely dead inside, that didn’t think they had any use or worth or anything, and I won a pageant. Now I have an opportunity to tell other people about my story and inspire other girls (to speak out),” she said.