Local Miss USA contestant talks about overcoming sexual abuse


When beautiful contestants fill the stage this weekend at the Miss USA pageant, a local woman will proudly represent the Hoosier State.

Mekayla Diehl is just 25 years old, but she has a remarkable life story that is both tragic and incredibly inspiring.

Forgiveness and faith are Mekayla's foundation.

Don't let the fancy dresses and shiny sequins fool you, though. There's a lot more to Miss Indiana than meets the eye.

This Miss USA contestant grew up in the great outdoors right here in Michiana.

"I loved Hot Wheels," she laughs. "We had the best Hot Wheels track that anybody could ever dream of. Loved Hot Wheels. We had dirt bikes, four wheelers, and horses. I'm still that way. I'm still outside."

Raised by her grandmother, Mekayla surprised everyone when she found a new interest.

"She told me one day, 'Nonnie, I want to be in a pageant,'" grandmother Katie Sautter recalls. "And I went, 'A pageant?'"

It turns out that the self-described tomboy also shines as a competitor.

"Bristol homecoming queen was her very first crown. Two weeks later she was crowned Elkhart County Fair queen, and it's just kind of snowballed."

There was the Miss Elkhart County title in 2011, and the runner up for Miss Indiana - Miss America in 2012.

The Miss Indiana USA pageant win is by far the most exciting opportunity.

Mekayla manages Ashley Swathwood's formal dress shop in Elkhart, called Ashley Rene's.

"We're pretty excited for her," Ashley exclaims. "We have our very own Michiana girl, from right here, going for Miss USA. It's a huge honor, a huge accomplishment, and that's never happened....ever."

And it almost didn't happen.

Miss Indiana's life started in nearby Union, Michigan, a small town situated near Long and Baldwin Lakes.

It's a tight-knit community where a lot of friends and family watched Mekayla grow up. It's also a place where an unthinkable crime happened.

"I was eight years old when I was sexually abused," Mekayla reveals. "Very quickly after that we moved in with my grandmother and eventually was adopted."

"At first I was sad. And then I found my outlets. My grandmother was very encouraging. Anything that I wanted to try to do, she tried to find the best way. I had horses. We tried 4-H, I tried saddle club. Dancing was my emotional outlet. I loved to dance, and that became my emotional release."

Katie Sautter was living in Bristol, Indiana, when she adopted Mekayla and her little brother.

"We got through it. By the grace of God we got through it," she explains.

The man who hurt Mekayla was a friend of the family. Her parents trusted him and left him alone with the children. Unfortunately, he was never prosecuted.

"Unfortunately, because of my parents' decisions, it did not get resolved like it should have," Mekayla admits. "I don't know where that man is. I could care less if I ever see him again. However, I have learned to forgive him so that I can move on. Forgiveness and moving on are two things that are a must in our family."

Bill Diehl worked hard to turn his life around and repair his relationship with his daughter.

"We all knew right from wrong. Sometimes you just don't listen... when you should've."

He's close to his kids and marvels at their success.

"In everything she does she's still my little girl," Bill says. "It's hard to believe. It's pretty amazing."

Mekayla is an advocate for child abuse awareness causes. Her main mission is to help troubled kids through Bashor Children's Home in Goshen.

"I hope," she begins, pausing. "I hope they see that their future isn't decided by their parents or what their past decisions are. That means the most to me. Because I hope they can look at me and see that, yes, I'm a pageant girl, but I had a dream and I worked very, very hard for it. And I didn't let my past define me."

Preliminary rounds started Wednesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Miss USA pageant will be televised live on NBC starting at 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 8.

A watch party is planned for Sunday night in Union, Michigan, at Zimmey's Tavern. A big crowd of family and friends will be there.

There's another group that will be closely watching in Canada: at a Native American reservation.

We'll explore Mekayla's Native American connection in another special report Thursday night.


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