Wayne Parry/AP
September 11, 2017 08:00 AM

Victoria Huggins returned to the pageant circuit at 17, but she’s been advocating for Alzheimer’s awareness and music therapy since she was 7 years old.

Huggins, the reigning Miss North Carolina, sang for her great-grandmother during visits to the nursing home where she received extended care. After a while, other residents wanted to hear her voice, so Huggins performed in the lobby, where she encountered Alzheimer’s patients for the first time.

“Sometimes the music would help connect them to memories they had been unable to remember due to Alzheimer’s,” Huggins, 23, tells PEOPLE. “To see how something that I love so much, music, was able to bring so much joy and comfort not only to the person dealing with the disease, but also their families, that showed me that that was something I wanted to get involved in.”

Huggins — who entered her first pageant when she was 5 years old — remembers one song in particular that resonated with a patient she visited in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

“There was a lady named Miss Rosie, and she had not been able to remember her husband for the past six months,” the University of North Carolina at Pembroke alumna recalls. “I started singing ‘At Last,’ and she reached her hand from the wheelchair to her husband’s beside her and said, ‘Honey, that’s our song.’ She started singing along to the lyrics and told all of her caregivers that that was her first dance at their wedding. He just looked at her like he had seen the sun for the first time. It was like a scene out of The Notebook.”

Life changing moments like that led Huggins to partner with the Alzheimer’s Association, for which she serves as an ambassador and partakes in the organization’s annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s. And since earning the title of Miss North Carolina in June, Huggins has started gathering iPods and loading them with personalized playlists for Alzheimer’s patients to listen to in nursing homes.

The Johns Hopkins grad student explains that the cost of music therapy makes it difficult to implement in every nursing home, but the iPods can help until legislation funding the practice passes.

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“That’s my ultimate goal,” Huggins says of pushing for government funding. “North Carolina is on the way to having it implemented in every facility. A lot of other states have it on a much larger scale, but it definitely needs more awareness, and I hope that’s what I can do.”

Bringing her cause to Miss America, where she competed Sunday, seems like a perfect fit to Huggins, as nearly two-thirds of the more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s are women.

 

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