Each time Hayley Barber has a chance to sign an autograph for a young fan, she pens the same encouraging message: You are fearfully and wonderfully made. A graduate of Pelham High School and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), she competed in the Miss Alabama pageant five times before she was crowned Miss Alabama in 2016. As her reign comes to an end and she passes the title to a new contestant early this month, she reflects on why that message will remain pivotal to her as she pursues a career in pediatric optometry: all people have a God-given value beyond the opinions of a judge, audience or peer.
Athletic and “always outside playing” as a child, Barber did not develop an interest in pageants until age 16, when she realized if she wanted to attend a four-year university, she needed to start looking at scholarship opportunities. She graduated valedictorian of her class, but her standardized test scores weren’t quite high enough for academic scholarships. She also had a passion for dance. The Pelham High School Pantherettes Dance Team won third place at the NDA National Dance Competition in kick and won state level competitions with kick, jazz, and prop while she was on the team. It took seeing a Miss Alabama Outstanding Teen pageant winner dance and speak at an event for Barber to realize pageants could be a way to prioritize her education, continue competing in dance, and give back to her community all at the same time.
As her vision for her future was taking shape, Barber began to realize her eyesight was perhaps holding her back. She failed to get her driver’s license on her first attempt because she couldn’t pass the vision test. She had noticed problems with her vision in the classroom in the past but had never spoken up about it. After meeting with an optometrist and receiving corrective lenses, she began volunteering at the UAB Eye Care Center. “The very first day I worked in pediatrics, and I saw a young girl put on her first pair of glasses and she just lit up. She got so confident from being able to see things clearly,” she remembers. Barber could relate to that enthusiasm—she too had just realized the clarity that came from prioritizing her sight.
Barber founded her pageant community service platform “Sight for Small Eyes” in 2010. She has pushed for legislation that would require comprehensive eye exams for children entering kindergarten and wrote an interactive healthy vision curriculum for Boys and Girls Clubs of America. She also partnered with optometrists at Wal-Mart Centers locally and regionally to provide free eye examinations to children up to age 8. Wal-Mart corporate later agreed to provide 10,000 free scholarship-based eye examinations nationwide.
Working alongside Pelham-based non-profit Sight Savers America, Barber learned there are many children who are legally blind in the state of Alabama who cannot have their vision corrected by surgery, therapy, or corrective lenses. These children need a closed-circuit television (now called an electronic video magnifier) that costs $2,500. In the five years Barber competed for the Miss Alabama crown—as Miss Tennessee Valley (2012), Miss Jefferson County (2013), Miss Phenix City (2014), Miss Talladega County (2015) and Miss Shelby County (2016)—she raised enough money for five machines to be given to low vision pediatric patients in Alabama. “The first girl that I delivered it to was unable to read before she got the machine. When I delivered it to her and trained her on it, she read her very first book on her own in front of me,” Barber remembers. “I’ve stayed connected with another child who received the machine and [then] was accepted to Alabama School of Fine Arts.” From among all the contestants competing at the Miss America pageant last fall, Barber was recognizednationally for her community service platform and won the Jean Bartlett Quality of Life Award. “That was probably my favorite and most rewarding experience thus far because I have worked really hard [to] grow my platform to its full extent so I can make the biggest impact I can possibly make,” she remembers.
The daughter of Karon Holloway Barber and Rev. Mark Barber, pastor at Hillview Baptist Church near Forestdale, Ala., Hayley says as a child her routine was church every Sunday and every Wednesday. As she got older, she realized faith was no longer something she was required to participate in—it was up to her to make church attendance and spiritual development a priority. “I had to make the choice to have a relationship with God on my own,” she says. “That’s when I started to feel like I developed in my spirituality because I was making an active choice every day to read my Bible or pray continually.” That commitment gave her the strength she needed to handle the criticism that often comes with pageantry and the slips in confidence from comparing herself to other contestants. “Knowing that you are unique in your own right, that somebody created you for a special reason, has always helped me,” she says. “Being confident in the fact that I still had value was really important to me.” That is why she adds a hint of Psalm 139:14 to her autograph—especially when signing for girls.
To all the young women who walk away without the Miss Alabama title this month, Barber says the years she found herself in that same pair of heels she still benefitted tremendously from the program. “If I look at Hayley when I was 16 and was just starting out, I was shy. I was a tomboy. I was not outspoken whatsoever. And I look at me now and how much confidence I have gained. I know that’s due to the program,” she says. “I forced myself to live a healthy lifestyle because of the swimsuit competition. I forced myself to speak in public because I wanted to share my platform. I forced myself to build leadership skills by fundraising. So all the different aspects of the program really pushed me to become the best person I could be and I gained lifelong friends along the way. “Barber says she will draw upon all of the valuable experience she gained from the Miss Alabama program, the scholarship money she earned, and most importantly her faith as she applies to graduate schools to study to be an optometrist and live out her vision of serving others in our community.