Beauty queen Sandahl Taylor is happily married with two children, but there was a time when she was a single mother and staying with friends. During several Christmas seasons, The Salvation Army Angel Tree program helped provide clothes and toys for her kids.
“I was struggling for a long time,” Taylor says. “Even when my husband and I got married, we were doing better, but we still needed help. For a long time, my kids were a part of Angel Tree.”
Today, Taylor is the reigning Mrs. Pennsylvania Galaxy 2021–22 and teaches cosmetology at Pittsburgh’s South Hills Beauty Academy. She and her husband, Kenneth, who is retired from the U.S. Army, have been married for seven years and are the parents of son Blake, 14, and daughter Anastasia, 10.
“Now we’re in a place where we can give back,” Taylor says. “For several years, we’ve chosen children from the Angel Tree to sponsor. I have my children each pick somebody out and my husband and I pick someone. We always ask if they have a pair of siblings since we have a boy and a girl. My children are allowed to pick whoever they resonate with.”
The Angel Tree program helps provide Christmas gifts for hundreds of thousands of children and seniors each year. Families apply and their wish list is shared with donors, who purchase clothing, toys, and other goods. A recipient’s information is typically printed on a paper angel and hangs on a Christmas tree before being selected.
“For many years, Angel Tree was a godsend for me,” Taylor said. “I’m just glad to be in a position now to be able to give back and help out with that.”
That’s not Taylor’s only connection to The Salvation Army, as she also gives free haircuts to kids returning to school each fall.
Coming back strong
However, the road to her current life and benevolence was not a straight one. Sandahl grew up underprivileged in Pittsburgh, though her family was not the worst off in the neighborhood. When her father, Roy, suffered a heart attack and stroke in 2005, the family lost its home. She was only 17 and had just graduated from high school.
“I had to leave my childhood home,” she said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go because I was still very young.”
She lived with her mother, Donna, during this time, but later in 2007, ended up “bouncing between different people’s homes.” This time, Sandahl had her young son in tow.
“I left a domestic violence situation with just the baby clothes and my son and my vehicle,” she said. “I knew I needed to get my son out of this situation that we were both in and I chose to leave.
“I really had nothing. I had no clothes. I ended up going from house to house to house with my son.”
Two programs, “Dress for Success” and the Employment, Advancement, and Retention Network (EARN), helped her get clothing and affordable housing. She also worked “odd jobs” to put food on the table.
“They kind of helped me get back on my feet and turn my life around,” she said of the programs. “I eventually landed on my feet. God saved me for a reason.”
In 2014, Sandahl got her teaching license in cosmetology and started giving back to the community.
“I kind of started helping other people after I got situated,” she said. “I did what I could. I was always volunteering in the community.”
One way she helped was by giving free haircuts to people in need, including veterans, women, and children. Her father, who served in Vietnam, and Kenneth, are both veterans, so she helped stuff Christmas stockings through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
That philanthropic spirit eventually led to Taylor giving free haircuts at The Salvation Army’s back–to–school effort at the Pittsburgh Temple in 2014 and at a former Salvation Army church in Carnegie, Pa.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” she said. “I turned it into more than just haircuts.”
In fact, Taylor also started collecting, shoes, clothes, and school supplies to give away to needy children each fall.
“Since 2015, I think I’ve collected over 5,000 items for The Salvation Army. I just know that having a haircut or clothing can change somebody’s life because it did for me,” she said through tears. “Seeing the smiles on people’s faces, it’s like heaven. I’ve seen men cry and I’ve seen women just be grateful and thankful.
“I’ve seen children get their pride back as they return to school. For me, that’s what makes it worth it. I don’t need much, but just seeing those smiles is everything.”
Finding herself in pageantry
As a child, Sandahl seemed an unlikely beauty queen contestant. She was quiet and reserved before coming out of her shell and joining the dance team in high school.
“I loved theater, but I just never felt like I was popular or cool or really anyone who mattered,” she said. “I was bullied a lot in high school and participating in pageantry really helped me with my self–confidence, helped me find my voice, and helped me realize I was so much more than all the things that made up my past.”
Her break into the pageantry world came when Raquel Riley Thomas, who led the Mrs. Pennsylvania America Pageant, noticed her community service on social media and reached out to tell her she would be a “perfect contestant.” In 2016, Sandahl had never done a pageant before and was new to the game.
“The very first pageant I ever did was as a married woman,” she said. “I didn’t even know there were pageants out there for me because at 19, I had a child very young and typically that would exclude you from beauty pageants. You must be single to be a part of most beauty pageants.”
Being crowned Mrs. Allegheny County was her first title and Sandahl quickly learned the power of a crown and sash.
“When I first started wearing that sash and crown, people wanted to know what I was doing,” she said. “When I would go to an event, they asked me, ‘Who are you? What is this about? What are you doing here?’ It really opened a lot of doors for me to not only talk about the things that were important to me, but issues I thought were important to the community.
“It really allowed me to see what I call the ‘power of the crown’ and how much good can be done with it.”
When it came time to pick a cause, the choice was easy for Sandahl. She chose heart health because of her father’s heart attack. She has volunteered for the American Heart Association for 19 years and wants to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack— something she didn’t know when she was 17.
“I realized this was happening to me for a reason,” she said. “I really believe that I was called to give back to the community and teach other people how to become heart healthy and how to recognize the signs and symptoms.
“A lot of people don’t realize how important it is for our hearts that we take time for ourselves and do things that we enjoy. Helping others can help us as well. That’s where it all started for me.”
Taylor, 35, said she enjoys modeling, acting, competing, and getting dressed up and being on stage.
“I get to show a little bit more of a feminine side that I never really got to have before,” she says.
However, it’s what the pageants stand for that Taylor enjoys the most, and she helps spread the message as a part–time motivational speaker.
“I found that the Galaxy International Pageant’s mission and their values really resonated with me,” she said. “Their mission is to emphasize beauty and culture across the world. Beauty isn’t just one thing, but everything about a person. The goal is to empower women for generational change for tomorrow.
“That’s why I started giving back. I want to show kids, even my own kids, that even if you don’t have much to give, even if you don’t have money or a skill, you have time, and by volunteering your time to help others, that can mean the world to somebody. That’s how we can bring generational change.”
A Salvation Army future?
Taylor’s current pageant title is Mrs. Pennsylvania Galaxy for 2021–22 and she has also held the titles Mrs. Germany World 2020 and Mrs. Pennsylvania America in 2018. She competed this past summer in the Mrs. Galaxy International Pageant and finished in the top eight. She finds inspiration from Maria Torres, the pageant director and a former single mother who brings awareness to Latina issues and preaches the message that “you can be a single mom and still do amazing things.”
“I loved that about her because at one point in my life, I was a single mom,” she said. “I was trying to do all these things and I didn’t feel heard. I didn’t feel welcomed or wanted because I did have a child out of wedlock and a lot of people frown upon that. The pageants gave me a voice to be heard.”
Sandahl said her pageant coach, Crystal Cavey, “saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. She made me feel right at home in the Galaxy system.”
While the pageant world has given her self–esteem and a sense of belonging, Taylor’s spiritual life is more complicated. She believes in God and recites daily affirmations with a spiritual bent in her search for faith.
“My daily affirmations are more of a daily reminder of who I am and a reminder that I am a strong, powerful woman,” she said. “I am a loving mother. In the eyes of God, I am wanted. I am a child of God, as we all are. I believe in God; I just don’t know what else that is yet. I’m still looking for answers.”
Taylor’s search for a church has also proven elusive. She has tried out a wide variety of Christian churches from a host of denominations, but nothing feels right yet.
“I’m looking for somewhere that looks at me for who I am,” she said.
Sandahl said all her experiences with The Salvation Army have been nothing but “wonderful” and she would like to connect more.
“All I’ve known them to do is help,” she said. “I’ve never heard one negative thing about The Salvation Army. For me, it’s been an outlet of a place to serve.
“I’m looking forward to hopefully partnering with The Salvation Army even more. I’d like to go on mission trips to other countries and help people in need. Perhaps I can also provide haircuts for The Salvation Army. I feel like helping the least fortunate is something that’s important.”