Miss Ohio’s cause? Lightning safety, not world peace

When Ellen Bryan tells people that her adopted platform as Miss Ohio is lightning safety, they usually think it’s a joke – and then wait for her real answer.

But lightning safety is no laughing matter to Ellen, whose older sister Christina was struck and crippled by lightning on June 13, 2000. Christina, who had just finished her junior year in high school, was picking up golf bag stands on the driving range at the golf course where she worked when she was struck by lightning after a thunderstorm had seemingly ended. Her injuries from the lightning strike were so severe she is unable to walk or speak.

Photo by Valerie Carnevale

“Even without her being able to talk, you can know what she’s thinking just by looking at her eyes,” Ellen said.

Christina went on her first flight since she was injured to watch her sister compete in the Miss America pageant last month. Though Ellen didn’t win, she reveled in the experience.

“I just have been enjoying every experience” as Miss Ohio, she said.

She began competing in pageants as a student at Ball State because a professor told her it would be a good way to learn skills valuable in her intended career as a broadcast journalist.

“It’s helped me grow a lot,” she said.

Now that she’s back home, she’s back to her duties as Miss Ohio – which include promoting lightning safety and awareness.

She preaches the slogan “When lightning roars, go indoors” to anyone who will listen. If you can hear thunder, you’re within range of a lightning strike, weather officials say. It’s not safe to go back outside until a half-hour after you last hear thunder.

Ellen admits her own family didn’t take lightning very seriously until Christina was hit.

“You want to take it seriously, but you never imagine that someone you know will be struck,” she said.

Ellen has talked to more than 3,000 students, more than 100 businesses and countless civic organizations. A public service announcement on lightning safety created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration features Ellen and Christina.

It can really grate on her when she’s on a college campus and storms are threatening and students are strolling along as if nothing is going on. A thunderstorm rolled through one day when she was at Harry Potter World in Florida.

“Nobody moved,” she said. “Everybody just stayed outside. I kept running into buildings.

“It was very frustrating,” she added. “Even the parks department didn’t come on and say ‘We have a storm.’”

But word seems to be getting through somehow: Lightning deaths have plummeted to record lows in recent years.

Even though she calls the decrease “exciting,” Ellen vows to remain vigilant with her message.

“When I see people that are still out in thunderstorms, you just know your work’s not done,” she said. “You have more to do.

“There’s never going to be a cure for lightning. We’re not going to be able to stop it from coming down.”

She’ll continue to urge lightning safety and awareness once she relinquishes her crown. A 2011 graduate of Ball State, Ellen hopes to land a job as a television broadcaster soon after her Miss Ohio reign ends. One day, she said, she’d love to be an anchor on The Today Show.

No matter where her career takes her, she said, “I’ll always be drawing back on the pageant experience.”

Something else won’t change, either.

“I’ll always be talking about Christina’s story,” she said.

Her sister, she said, embodies the message “Never give up. You can take whatever life throws at you.”

Ellen set up the Lightning Safety Awareness Fund through the Mercer County Civic Foundation in Celina, Ohio. Checks should be written to the Mercer County Civic Foundation, with the memo line saying Lightning Safety and Awareness Fund.

The Mercer County Civic Foundation
119 West Fulton P.O. Box 439
Celina, Ohio 45822