Sashes and scrubs: SRU student uses pageant participation to spread organ-donor message

LeAnn Penn, a Slippery Rock University senior biology major, with her parents

LeAnn Penn, a Slippery Rock University senior biology major, is flanked by her parents, Diane and Jeffrery Penn, after being named Miss Moraine State.

Feb. 24, 2017

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - For most young women, the pride, notoriety and subsequent scholarship opportunities that come from participating on the pageant circuit are what drive them to compete.

LeAnn Penn, a Slippery Rock University senior biology major, is not like most young women.

The native of Conneaut Lake sees such events as a "bully pulpit," a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda. Think of Penn as a superhero with a gown and crown, rather than a cape, using her "pageant powers" for good.

In fact, the former Miss Butler County and current Miss Moraine State, feels her most memorable titles won't come emblazoned on a sash, but rather while clad in a military uniform or hospital scrubs.

Inspired by her father, a U.S. Marine, and her mother, a registered nurse, Penn enlisted in both the U.S. National Guard and Army ROTC in August 2014. She plans to attend medical school to become an Army doctor following her May graduation from SRU.

Penn at work in an SRU biology lab

   Penn at work in an SRU biology lab

While she always felt the pull to help others, becoming a constant on the pageant circuit - not to mention a philanthropist - was not part of Penn's original plan.

"I competed in pageants in high school, but I really didn't have any platforms," Penn said. "I went to a couple of events, but nothing tugged at my heart."

That changed when she was struck by a devastating personal loss three years ago with the death of her best friend, Jake French.

"His passing was completely unexpected," said Penn. "Ever since that day, I have wanted to save other people's best friends, because I couldn't save mine.

"One of the things that really helped me to overcome that grief was when I learned he was an organ donor. I realized that even though my best friend was no longer with me, he gave someone else's best friend a chance to live."

French's death became a catalyst for Penn, as well as providing a pageant platform, as she became an advocate for organ donation.

Penn began volunteering upwards of 200 hours per semester with Pittsburgh's Center for Organ Recovery and Education, a federally designated not-for-profit organ procurement organization that "works closely with donor families and designated health professionals."

"I see each of these things as stepping stones to where I want to be," said Penn. "I want to give back to people who are going through something difficult and who are in need."

Penn on the firing range

Penn on the firing range

For Penn, there is no time like the present to do so.

In an unusual move, in Fall 2016 Penn, just an undergraduate, established the LeAnn Penn Biology-Military Science Scholarship at SRU. The scholarship, with a $500 award, is for fellow biology majors and ROTC cadets. To be eligible, applicants must complete a minimum of one year in each program; submit a resume and two letters of recommendation - one each from a biology professor and a military superior. 

"Last year, I won the A.P. Vincent Scholarship and that really inspired me to establish a scholarship of my own," Penn said. "I thought to myself, 'If I don't start something now, I'll forget about this victory. I'll forget how hard this was to achieve this.'"

Penn hopes that by establishing a scholarship while still an undergraduate, she will inspire other SRU students and graduates to give back whenever possible.

"I really hope students and alumni pause to look at what I've done, find encouragement in those things that were difficult for them while in school, how those things made them a better person and to support a student following in their footsteps," said Penn.

"For me, being in ROTC and being a biology major has been a full-time job," said Penn. "It's almost like learning a new language, but it has made me a hundred times better as a leader, a scientist and a soldier. That's why I chose to do this."

As if she wasn't busy enough, Penn also helps to organize annual blood, bone marrow and organ donations annually at SRU in order to promote the gifts of life that French made possible.

Participating in pageants, Penn said, has merely provided an avenue to help raise awareness.

"When you have a crown on your head, people start to pay attention," she said. "When you become a public figure, you attract a crowd and you can use that pull to do some amazing things."

MEDIA CONTACT: Maizee Zaccone | 724.738.2091 | mxz1016@sru.edu