The reigning queen of the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival has just completed her memorable spring semester in college.
Hayley Leach, a junior-to-be at the University of Kentucky, spent the semester working as an intern for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Leach (pictured) was a part of group of 13 UK students who participated in the inaugural class of the Wildcats at the Capitol program which is a partnership between the Department of Political Science, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Office of the President.
“It was a phenomenal experience to work as the Press Intern for Senator McConnell this past semester,” said Leach, who will be returning to Pineville for KMLF festivities during the Memorial Day weekend. “I was fortunate enough to be selected as an inaugural member of the Wildcats in D.C. program that the Political Science department at UK created.
“As a member of this program, I lived with 12 other UK students in a townhome which was located a block from the U.S. Capitol. Not only was it an amazing experience to live with other driven students, it was great to attend work each day and see the world’s greatest deliberative body at work. As a political science major, I couldn’t ask for a better experience to see what I have studied in the classroom at work. I had many memorable experiences while working in Senator McConnell’s office. I was able to meet numerous Kentuckians and take them on a tour of the Capitol. I met with Sen. McConnell and got to speak with him, and I regularly attended press conferences where each party’s leadership would speak.
“My most memorable moment occurred at the end of my internship. I attended a Senate Hearing on International Parental Child Abduction. My task was to take pictures of Sen. McConnell while he introduced a Kentuckian that had struggled with International Parental Child Abduction. I got to hear her testimony about the effort Sen. McConnell went to that ensured she was able to get her child back. It was amazing to hear how much Sen. McConnell cares about his constituents.”
Leach -- who graduated from Grant County High School in Dry Ridge which is located between Lexington and Cincinnati -- also stays really busy in the classroom, receiving academic honors as well as earning a remarkable grade point average of 3.9 after this semester. She has a double major in Political Science, and Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies. After finishing her undergraduate work, she plans to attend law and business schools and earn a dual degree with a Juris Doctorate of Law and a Masters in Public Policy.
Asked what’s her most difficult class that she has had at UK so far, Leach said it was the “Introduction to Political Analysis” three-hour course (PS 372). She doesn’t really like math, either.
“The hardest class I have taken at UK thus far was Political Analysis. This course was basically political statistics,” said Leach. “Math is my least favorite subject, so the course was challenging but I had a wonderful professor that made the material much more interesting than I originally thought it would be.”
In addition to academics and college activities as well as serving as the 2017 KMLF queen, Leach is also participating in the upcoming Miss Kentucky pageant in late June.
“I will also be competing for the title of Miss Kentucky 2018 this year as Miss Woodford County,” said Leach. “The pageant will be held the last weekend of June.”
Leach also participated in the 2017 Miss Kentucky pageant as she was Miss University of Kentucky. The UK student added that she “was fortunate enough to win the interview award and win over $1,000 in scholarship money last year.”
Leach has an inspiring story in her immediate family to share with. As a result, she has become very passionate about helping the kids and educating the public about autism and bullying prevention in recent years.
“I became interested in advocating for those with autism at a very early age. My brother, Matthew, was diagnosed with this developmental disorder when I was just five years old,” she explained. “As a sibling to someone with this condition, I found that there was very little information that helped me understand what was happening to my brother. A few years ago, I decided to develop a sibling support group to educate others and I called it Hayley’s Heroes. This group allowed me to provide and share information, insight, and experiences with other siblings of autistic children.
“I was inspired to do more in support of Matthew after he was bullied numerous times at school. Shortly after the first bullying incident, I joined the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA). Through my membership, I was able to develop a project on autism and bullying, and present it to countless students within our community. I wanted others to understand autism and the effects of bullying.
“During my research, I found that statistics show that children with autism are more likely to be bullied than children with other differences. My goal with this project was to make sure that any child who is bullied would benefit from my presentation. I know that my illustrated talk produced positive results within the school system. Several of the students who had been mean to my brother apologized to him
“Some of the students started asking him to participate in more activities once they understood that he struggled with social situations. I saw the benefit of my efforts when my brother came home one day and said that he was making new friends. In his unique way, he expressed to me how much my project had changed his life at school. Even though the conditions at school have improved, I anticipate that some bullying will continue to occur. This is more than a project to me because autism is a part of my brother’s life. Until there is a cure, I will continue to advocate for him and the many others who share the same diagnosis.”
Now, what about her favorite memory at prestigious KMLF, which first began in 1931 and is one Kentucky’s oldest festivals?
“My favorite memory was when my name was announced as the new Kentucky Mountain Laurel Queen to the crowd at the cove,” Leach recalled. “It was a very surreal moment for me. I can distinctly remember trying to take in every aspect of that special moment. Although walking through the crowd will be unforgettable, my favorite moment was when I was walking through the crowd and I saw my family. It was such an emotional moment for us all and I knew they were incredibly proud of me. I'm so happy they were there to experience that special moment with me.”
Leach, who will be giving up her crown to the new queen at the 2018 KMLF, is anxious to visit the festival again.
“I’m absolutely excited to be back in Pineville for KMLF,” she said. “The Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival is the most spectacular event I have ever had the honor to be a part of. The people of Pineville are the kindest people on the planet and the festival itself is the epitome of southern hospitality and charm. Not only am I excited about coming to the festival this year, I look forward to attending for years to come.”
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught