There are those that let the odds define them, and those who strive to defy the odds. For Valerie Gatto, the newly crowned Miss Pennsylvania USA 2014, the latter is somewhat of a mantra to live by.
From the very beginning, Gatto grew up surrounded by a strong faith and an even stronger family. Her story is one that could have ended in tragedy.
Her mother was raped at knife-point and managed to escape her attacker, but soon realized she was pregnant with his child. Keeping the pregnancy a secret, she intended on giving the baby up for adoption. Unyielding support from family members and a strong belief that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle changed her mind.
Her mother’s decision to turn a negative into a positive resonated deeply in Valerie’s life. Growing up, her participation in church and the Girl Scouts reinforced the importance of giving back.
Hard work, sacrifice and a positive attitude enabled Valerie to graduate magna cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh, pursue acting opportunities and, most recently, snag the crown in the Miss Pennsylvania pageant without missing a beat in her philanthropic pursuits. And as far as she’s concerned, she’s only just begun.
Question: What in-spired you to share the story of your mother’s sexual assault?
Answer: I knew, at a young age, it wasn’t something that should be shared with my peers in elementary school. But I knew it was a topic that needed to have light shed on it. And I live my life not thinking of it as something negative, but looking at how to turn a negative into a positive. … A lot of people could benefit from this type of story — not just young women about how to protect themselves and how to prevent the crimes. It’s a story that could inspire a lot of people and, if I stay a strong person, I can inspire many other people. So, I don’t mind being an advocate for something like this. There’s not that many role models for young women out there today that are actually positive and uplifting, and that’s why I got into pageantry.
Q: You found out about the assault as a young child. How were you able to reconcile with that?
A: The version that was told to me when I was little — it wasn’t everything that I know today. The version that was given to me was definitely something for my level, and it was a lot to handle. But I also still believe, with my faith and going to church and having a church family and a close support system, that I didn’t really let it affect me too much. I don’t know if he’s still out there; I don’t know if he still exists.
Whenever my mom managed to get away, he was going to murder her, but there was just this bright flash of light, and he got scared and didn’t want any onlookers to see her and what he was doing to her. So, that light gave my mom the opportunity to run away and escape — and if that bright light didn’t appear, she would have been murdered. I like to think of that light as my mother’s and (my) guardian angel. It was always turning a negative into a positive. That’s why I don’t think I let it affect me at a young age. She always would tell me I was her light — I am the light to illuminate the darkness for all to see, and I look at it from that moment of conception, there has been that light associated with darkness, and that’s what I hope to do with Miss Pennsylvania USA 2014.
Q: People often let their circumstances bog them down and define their lives in a negative way. Do you remember making a conscious decision not to do the same?
A: No. I don’t really remember one moment saying, “I’m not going to let it stop me.” I’ve always been a positive person, and I went to church all the time when I was little. I think it was more about having religion and Christianity a lot of my life. So, I knew that God put me here for a reason and, although my circumstances weren’t the same as a traditional family with the perfect white-picket fence, he gave me to my family and my mother for a reason.
It really dwells with religion, and my spirituality and Christianity, why I don’t let it define me. I knew God put me here for a purpose, and he’s the reason my mother and I were saved. I want to do him proud and my family proud, and, if I did just sit there and think, “Why did this happen?” or “Does my father know I exist?” and be scared and let the fear of the unknown stop me, I wouldn’t be living my life. He put me here to do great things, and I’m not going to let that stop me.
Q: Are you able to pull from your faith during the hard times?
A: Definitely. Especially before I went out onstage or pageant weekend, or I’m just feeling stressed out, I go to him to give me the strength, and I pray to him to help me make it through it or just give me the confidence and to get through every moment. I put it in his hands. You have to realize that, sometimes, it might not work out the way you want it, but I go to him for the tools I need to succeed whenever I’m feeling stressed-out or anxious or whatnot.
Q: So, at the end of the day, what do you want your legacy to be?
A: I hope to inspire people and to show people that no matter where you come from, you can achieve your dreams. But you need to make sacrifices, work hard and stay positive. I am a little girl from West View that had big dreams of going to Miss USA and being an actress, and you can make that happen. And I just want to show people you can do that and not let your circumstances define you.
Kate Benz is the social columnist for Trib Total Media and can be reached at [email protected] or 412-380-8515.