Delicate and cheery – that’s what you see.
Determined and unbreakable – that’s what you get.
Such is the sublime dichotomy of Paige Owens.
“My three younger brothers, they were born addicted and I would be their caretaker because my mom and dad were still doing drugs and drinking alcohol,” says Owens, 18, a waif-like pixie with a Samson-like will, who graduated from Valley High School last spring, despite extracurricular activities more burdensome than glee club or the student council. “I was like, I know how to take care of a baby doll, so how hard could this be?”
As it turned out … hard. “When my mom and dad divorced, he kicked her out and said, ‘Fine you want the drugs, you can have them’ and said, ‘Out!’ but he still had a hard time with alcohol,” she recalls. “He qualified for us to have the free breakfast and lunch program at school, then we would come home and maybe have dinner – it was a maybe.”
And just maybe, life would have a reward in store for a young woman forced to be an adult at a level some grown-ups can’t cope with — while she was still growing up. Then, in a blast of karma, the cosmos smiled upon her.
“Everyone at school was biting their nails to see if I got the call,” says Owens, an ex-intern with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s public affairs department, who did indeed get the call. Last May, the Epicurean Charitable Foundation awarded Owens a full-ride, “Future Leaders of Hospitality Scholarship” to UNLV’s hospitality management program starting this fall.
“It was a sigh of relief that I don’t have to worry about the financial costs anymore,” she says about the largess of the foundation, which is comprised of 25 top-tier food and beverage and hospitality executives, and aims to give a leg up to deserving students passionate about careers in the hospitality and culinary arts industries.
“We were thrilled to select Paige as an ECF scholarship participant,” says Melissa Arias, ECF’s executive director. “Paige not only impressed us from day one, but she continued to develop and wow us as the interview rounds continued. Her genuine story of success and accomplishments in the face of hardships pulled at our heartstrings and her drive and determination … had us inspired.”
One of seven Clark County high school students to score this year’s honor – bestowed annually on low-income and at-risk students — Owens aced the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism magnet program at Valley High School, sponsored by the LVCVA. (The Las Vegas Newswire and Las Vegas News Bureau are both operated by the LVCVA.)
As part of her ECF scholarship package, Owens also took home a brand-new Nissan Versa, courtesy of United Nissan. Even at the dawn of her up-and-coming new life, Owens knows the value of image and status.
“I ran for the first black car,” she says of the happy-tears-filled day the winners were announced at The Mansion at MGM Grand and given their choice among the sleek 2018 models. “I wanted to look like a CEO. They all drive black cars.”
At UNLV, Owens will major in hospitality, but with a concentration on communications, in which she already received solid training during her LVCVA internship last summer – so much so that Owens was also named one of the LVCVA’s “Hospitality Heroes.”
“It’s very rewarding to mentor a student with their personal and professional goals, but I never imagined how one student could impact me,” says Leiandra Gaskill, LVCVA community relations manager.
“Paige radiates joy and drive that is an inspiration not only to me professionally and personally, but to those around her,” Gaskill added about Owens, whose responsibilities included assisting the LVCVA’s host committee, which welcomes major conventions and special events to the city and educates the community on the importance of tourism to the local economy. “She is a shining star that brings a sparkle to everyone’s heart and I have no doubt she has a very bright future.”
Mutual admiration is evident when Owens is asked about what inspired her during her LVCVA internship and learning the communications ropes. “Leiandra was my biggest supporter,” she enthuses. “Her and I laughed at random moments, went to events and really connected … She became the mother figure I never really had,” she adds, noting that “connecting” with people was initially difficult, but with Leiandra’s help, she now tries to “grab the attention of everyone in the room when I speak.”
Now, Owens’ vision for her future as a Las Vegas goodwill ambassador and promotional firebrand are as grand as the mansion where her life changed.
“I want to be the voice — maybe even the face — of Las Vegas,” she says. “People travel here for a reason and I want to be that reason. They hear what I have to say or what I write and they say, ‘I want to book a flight to Las Vegas.’ I just want to put Vegas forward.”
Big, beautiful dreams couldn’t be quelled by an arduous, emotionally fraught adolescence, strained by her parents’ substance abuse, subsequent divorce, and her mom’s abandonment just as Owens started eighth grade. Suddenly, three dependent siblings were looking toward her for guidance. Stress mounted exponentially.
“Don’t make me cry!” she says when asked to recount her tribulations, but gamely does just that, remembering looking after her brothers – now 13, 11 and 5 – even after feeling unwanted as the family’s first-born. “All my mom ever wanted was a son – son! son! son! But I was a girl. Then she got a boy, and another boy, and another boy, so I was basically cast away.”
Faced with a weakened familial infrastructure and a recovering alcoholic father who had won custody of them in court, Owens stepped up, aided by relatives including her grandmother and great aunt who helped get the boys off to school. “I wanted to be that female role model for them after my mom left,” she says. “My brothers get frustrated and it’s hard when they are crying. We have our rough times but at the end of the day we love each other.”
Long morning bus rides and extended days at school – her “sanctuary,” she says – helped Owens cope, but not without stretches of despair. “I would get mad and frustrated. My grades started to slip, my act started to change. I was like, ‘Why do (other kids) have a normal life? Why do they have a mom and dad? Why do they get to have fun and I have to go home? Why do I have to care?’ But for the magnet program, my two advisors were like, ‘You need to stop and you need to do this.’ I turned my act around pretty quick.”
Bolstered by inspirational YouTube videos and admiration for her grandmother who eventually took the entire family into her home, Owens endured. Amid all the pressures, another cropped up: how to come out as a gay teenager.
“I kept fooling myself – ‘Oh, he’s cute and he’s cute,’ but I didn’t feel comfortable with it and I didn’t know the term for it,” she says. “My grandmother said, ‘It’s you and it’s this.’ My dad, it took him awhile to be more accepting. When I came out to my mom, she said, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ She had nothing to do with me.”
However, with the indomitable will that defines her, Owens won’t be denied her sense of self. “My ninth-grade year, I came out to my friends,” she says. “‘I’m Paige, I’m queer, I’m here, gay is OK!’” she declares.
Ask the determined, future hospitality dynamo how she persevered through hardships that would fell a lesser spirit and you get a bold, yet thoroughly logical rationale.
“Sharks have to keep moving forward. They don’t swim backwards. Why would you turn around and go back to the drama when you can keep going forward? You’re fierce. You can do it.”
That makes perfect sense, given that Paige Owens consumed every obstacle in her way, then defiantly swam onward.
“Hospitality Heroes” is a program created by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), in conjunction with the U.S. Travel Association’s National Travel and Tourism Week, celebrated annually in May. The LVCVA and its tourism partners honor employees who deliver superior customer service. Since the program began in 2008, more than 500 “Hospitality Heroes” have been recognized in Southern Nevada.