The two little girls, shuffled from foster home to foster home after their mother struggled with drug addiction, would huddle together at bedtime.
"This is just a dream," they whispered to each other. "We will wake up and be with our mother."
Instead, they would wake up feeling like strangers, wondering where they would end up next. Their few possessions piled into black trash bags and tossed into a closet until the next move — which could come in a week or a month or a year.
The girls never knew.
One family forced them to live in an enclosed patio with four other foster kids. They were allowed inside only when a social worker visited. The state shut that home down.
One couple promised to adopt Kiera and her sister, Alys. But they got divorced.
Television beauty pageants offered a small escape. Kiera envied the glittery gowns and bright smiles.
She dreamed she would someday wear a sash and a tiara. But how could a child raised amid such ugly circumstances grow up to become a beauty queen?
• • •
Deb and Fred Perkins were soon-to-be empty nesters. Their three older children were grown and gone; their son was in middle school.
"We had so much to offer a child," said Deb, a vice president at CenterState Bank whose husband is senior pastor at New River Church near Wesley Chapel.
The pair began taking classes to adopt a child through Everyday Blessings, a faith-based agency in Thonotosassa.
The agency called. Would they take a sibling pair? Yes, they said.
The girls started with weekend visits. The first visit, they were skeptical.
"We went because we wanted to get out of the house," Kiera recalled.
But the family was nice. It had a dachshund named Partner. Kiera had never had a dog. They were invited to stay for dinner.
"We made hamburgers," Kiera said. "Mommy and daddy and baby hamburgers."
Overnight visits continued until the adoption was final.
It wasn't always easy. It took a while for Kiera and her sister to believe they would actually get to stay.
Kiera, then 10, and her sister officially became Perkinses on March 7, 2003.
It was what foster kids dream of: a "forever" family.
Deb asked the girls to name three things they wanted to do.
"Pageants," Kiera said, followed by modeling and cheerleading.
Knowing the intense work and time involved, Deb urged Kiera to wait a year. Then if she still wanted to compete, she could.
• • •
A year later, Kiera started entering pageants. In her first, Miss Junior Heart of Florida, she was second runnerup.
She competed again in 2006 and won. After that, she racked up titles quickly: Miss Teen Zephyrhills, Miss Orange Blossom Outstanding Teen, Miss Heart of Florida and Miss Teen Weeki Wachee. After taking a year off in 2009, Kiera was crowned Miss Teen Tampa.
Now 18, she competes this weekend for the title of Miss Teen Florida USA at Broward Community College in Hollywood. If she wins, she would represent Florida in the Miss Teen USA pageant, part of the Miss Universe pageant system owned by Donald Trump.
She trains relentlessly with a coach in Ormond Beach. She has no trouble promoting her platform: improving the foster care system.
"I want to recruit good families to become foster parents and guardians ad litem," she said. "This is something I feel passionate about."
She also wants foster kids to know they are precious and worthy of love. She plans to visit foster kids programs and hand out goody bags. She wants to share the story of how she overcame the obstacles to graduate from Zephyrhills High School and attend Pasco-Hernando Community College with the goal of becoming a neonatal nurse.
And how she now glides down a runway with her head held high.