For Amber Dawn Butler, recently crowned Miss Western Maryland, deciding to compete in pageants wasn't about getting attention or looking glamorous in an evening gown.
It was about paying for college — and finding a new normal after a car accident that left her severely injured and turned her life upside down.
Butler, a resident of Ellicott City, was home-schooled and pursued many interests as a teen — a dancer, a singer in the Peabody Choir, a golfer who drew scholarship offers at age 16, and an accomplished student: By the time she earned her high school diploma, she had racked up more than 50 credits at Howard Community College.
But suddenly, everything that seemed certain was cast into doubt.
When she was 16, Butler sustained serious injuries including a broken back in a car accident. Her father, Andrew Butler, who was driving when their car was hit head-on, also survived but suffered a traumatic brain injury.
According to Diane Butler, the mental and emotional toll on her daughter in the aftermath of the accident was as painful as the physical injuries. Now 22, Amber Butler has undergone grueling physical therapy that continues six years later, and she is in pain every day.
After the accident, Butler was no longer able to physically perform as she did before, and some interests and activities became much more challenging.
"I had to rethink what I was going to do with my life," she said.
One of the things she did was launch RED — Responsible and Educated Drivers — an organization that raises awareness of responsible driving.
Aimed at drivers of all ages, RED's message focuses on impaired and distracted driving — specifically discouraging texting while driving. The organization's Facebook page carries information about safe-driving events and training sessions, offers tips and warnings about driving in bad weather, and shares information about vehicle maintenance.
"We're making changes and driving down the fatality rates. We're making a difference," said Butler, who is pursuing a master's degree in marine affairs and policy at the University of Miami.
Through RED, Butler partnered with Bridgestone, Ford and other companies to tell her story and spread her message at venues around the country. She travels with the Florida Department of Transportation and partners with police to educate drivers about being responsible behind the wheel.
Some of her advocacy has been close to home: She has worked for safety improvements at the intersection where she and her father were injured, and which had been the site of frequent crashes before.
"There was a girl who died in an accident at that intersection the same week I had my accident," Butler said. "I convinced [highway officials] to change the lighting at the intersection, and there hasn't been an accident there since.
"I'm passionate about it because I'm thinking about it," she said. "I think it's up to me to help with some of those changes."
Diane Butler said starting RED helped her daughter heal emotionally and mentally from the accident.
"She learned to communicate with adults and go out and get initiatives done, to find solutions to problems," she said. "She suffered from terrible nightmares and [post-traumatic stress disorder] after the accident."
Placing herself in the spotlight also relates to her success in pageants, a pursuit she embraced while considering options to help pay for college.
"I'm a grad student, and I really appreciate scholarships because I have a lot of undergrad debt," she said. "I thought this was a great outlet."
In her first pageant at the University of Miami as a junior, she received first runner-up — and some scholarship money. Last year, at age 21, she won the pageant and was named Miss University of Miami.
The title came with another scholarship — and an additional monetary award for being named Miss Congeniality and for winning the talent portion (for ballroom dancing) of the event.
In February, Amber competed at the state level in Hagerstown and was crowned Miss Western Maryland. That title qualifies her to compete for the Miss Maryland title in late June.
The pageants have provided scholarships, confidence, physical strength and a community of friends all over the country.
While learning to reinvent herself and working to save lives through RED, Butler said, she's also having fun overcoming pageant stereotypes.
"Physically, I'm not the most competitive because I've had so many issues. I can't hit the gym like other girls can," she said. "You don't have to be the skinniest or the most talented, if you just really enjoy what you're doing it can make a difference in the long run. I still enjoy it, and think the judges see that.
"Sometimes there is a stigma attached to pageants, but not everyone fits that stereotype. I am very active in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math], I'm a leader in the transportation field … and I'm also a redhead," she said.
"Participating in the pageants has made her a better person, and she's made some really good friends in the process," Diane Butler said of her daughter. "Every one of them is smart, accomplished, well-spoken.
"This is a way of life for them, it's not just a pageant," she added. "They are committed to giving back to their own communities through their causes, and that's a huge part of Miss America."
Her daughter couldn't agree more.
"A pageant is fun," the reigning Miss Western Maryland said, "but it's what you make of the rest of the year that is important."