Growing up with amblyopia, an eye condition that can cause blindness, Kylee Solberg was forced to wear an eye patch as part of her treatment.
She says she was first bullied for her patch when she was in elementary school.
“I went to a very small school, and it only takes the voice of one person to start negativity in someone’s life,” the current Miss Idaho and Miss America hopeful, 21, tells PEOPLE. “I looked different, and it just didn’t help my self-esteem and confidence when I was younger.”
Solberg credits the support of her mother with helping her gain pride and self-worth.
“My mom always taught me to keep my head high and explain to people what was different about me,” she says.
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Her passion for ballet also helped face her bullies.
“My classical ballet training really taught me a lot about myself, and gave me that confidence to approach every situation like a performance – to put a smile on my face and show you that I’m here, and really show you what I’ve got,” says Solberg.
Solberg’s platform, Our Words Have Power, aims to “make sure that we use words to heal rather than hurt.”
“I hope to give young kids that self-confidence and that encouragement that they are enough, and to be happy in their own skin,” says Solberg.
Now that she’s overcome her bullies and gained self-esteem, Solberg hopes to take home the Miss America crown.
“I never expected this for my life,” she says. “For me to become Miss America, it would show that if you have a dream, if you have ambition, you can really achieve anything that you set your mind to.”
The 2017 Miss America competition airs Sunday, September 11 at 9/8c on ABC.